YARNELL, Ariz. — In the firefighting world, “hotshot” is the word given to those willing to risk their lives to go to the hottest part of a blaze. They are the best of the best, crews filled with adventure-seekers whose years of hard training ready them for the worst.
But in the full face of nature’s fury, all the training in the world isn’t always enough.
So it was Sunday for 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. These Hotshots were everything the word connotes: Daring and brave, a tightknit group brought together by a common bond of hard work and “arduous adventure,” reads the Prescott team’s web page.
“We are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fireline tasks,” says the site. “Comforts such as beds, showers and hot meals are not always common.”
Above all, the crew’s members prided themselves on their problem-solving, teamwork and “ability to make decisions in a stressful environment.”
The men died Sunday evening when a wind-whipped wildfire overcame them on a mountainside north of Phoenix. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“They were dedicated, hard-working people,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said. “I never heard them complain; they never complained to me at least. … They always seemed to be playing pranks on each other and a few on me.
“And I had a great deal of respect for them.”
At least two members of the crew had followed in their fathers’ firefighting footsteps.
Kevin Woyjeck, 21, used to accompany his dad, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, to the Los Angeles County Fire Department, joining in sometimes on ride-alongs. The firehouse was like a second home to him, said Keith Mora, an inspector with that agency.
“He wanted to become a firefighter like his dad and hopefully work hand-in-hand,” Mora said Monday outside of a fire station in Seal Beach, Calif., where the Woyjeck family lives. “He was a great kid. Unbelievable sense of humor, work ethic that was not parallel to many kids I’ve seen at that age. He wanted to work very hard.”
Chris MacKenzie, 30, grew up in California’s San Jacinto Valley, where father Michael was a former captain with the Moreno Valley Fire Department. An avid snowboarder, Chris MacKenzie joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004, then transferred two years ago to the Prescott Fire Department.
Longtime friend Dav Fulford-Brown told The Riverside Press-Enterprise that MacKenzie was set to receive a promotion soon. MacKenzie, Fulford-Brown said, “lived life to the fullest … and was fighting fire just like his dad.”
Another of the victims, Billy Warneke, 25, and his wife, Roxanne, were expecting their first child in December, his grandmother, Nancy Warneke, told The Press-Enterprise.
And Scott Norris, 28, was known around Prescott as much for his part-time job at Bucky O’Neill Guns as for his work as a Hotshot.
“I never heard a dirty word out of the guy,” said local William O’Hara. “He was the kind of guy who, if he dated your daughter, you’d be OK with it. He was just a model of a young, ideal American gentleman.”
Fourteen of those who died were in their 20s; the average age of the casualties was just 26. This is no surprise, given the rigors of the job.
As a condition of hire, each member is required to pass the U.S. Forest Service’s “Arduous Work Capacity Test” — which entails completing a 3-mile hike with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes. The group also set for its members a fitness goal of a 1.5-mile run in 10 minutes, 35 seconds; 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds; 25 push-ups in 60 seconds; and seven pull-ups, according to the crew’s website.
“The nature of our work requires us to endure physical hardships beyond most people’s experiences,” the website said. “Environmental extremes, long hours, bad food, and steep, rugged terrain, demand that we train early and often by running and hiking, doing core exercises, yoga, and weight training.”
The group started in 2002 as a fuels mitigation crew — clearing brush to starve a fire. Within six years, they had made their transition into the “elite” hotshot community.
At Captain Crossfit, a warehouse filled with mats, obstacle courses, climbing walls and acrobatic rings near the firehouse where the Hotshots worked, trainers Janine Pereira and Tony Burris talked about their day-to-day experiences with the crew in what was a home away from home for most of them.
The whole group grew beards and mustaches before the fire season started but had to shave their beards for safety.
“They were trying to get away with it, and finally someone was like, ‘No. You’ve got to shave that beard,'” Pereira said. “They were the strongest, the happiest, always smiling.”
Former Marine Travis Turbyfill, 27, whose nickname was “Turby,” would come in to train in the morning, then return in the afternoon with his two daughters and wife, Stephanie, a nurse, Pereira said.
“He’d wear these tight shorts … just to be goofy,” Pereira said. “He was in the Marine Corps and he was a Hotshot, so he could wear those and no one would bug him.”
At 43, crew superintendent Eric Marsh was by far the oldest member of the group. An avid mountain biker who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, Marsh became hooked on firefighting while studying biology at Arizona State University, said Leanna Racquer, the ex-wife of Marsh’s cousin.
In April 2012, Marsh let reporters from the ASU Cronkite News Service observe one of the crew’s training sessions. That day, they were playing out the “nightmare scenario” — surrounded by flames, with nothing but a thin, reflective shelter between them and incineration.
“If we’re not actually doing it, we’re thinking and planning about it,” Marsh said.
During that exercise, one of the new crew members “died.”
“It’s not uncommon to have a rookie die,” Marsh told the news service. “Fake die, of course.”
On Sunday, that scenario was all too real.