July 1, 2013

Elite Arizona firefighters were the front-line crew

The Associated Press

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.

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Unidentified members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew from Prescott, Ariz., pose together in this undated photo provided by the City of Prescott. Some of the men in this photograph were among the 19 firefighters killed while battling an out-of-control wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday, according to Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo.

The Associated Press

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Phillip Maldonado, a squad leader with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, trains crew members on setting up emergency fire shelters last year. On Sunday, June 30, 2013, 19 members of the Prescott, Ariz.-based crew were killed in a wildfire.

2012 Associated Press File Photo / Cronkite News

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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