As 20 elite Hotshot crews headed to an Arizona wildfire eerily near the scene where 19 colleagues died almost a year ago, painful questions are still being asked about the firefighters' deaths — at the same time that the crew that was devastated is being disbanded.
More than 200 firefighters — including five Hotshot crews that do the dirtiest, most dangerous work — were laboring early Thursday just north of Slide Rock National Park near Sedona to contain a wind-whipped blaze that had grown to 4,500 acres. It was threatening the small town of Kachina Village, whose 2,600 residents were told to prepare to evacuate.
Firefighters from at least 15 more Hotshot crews like the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished last June were on their way in the next few days, the U.S. Forest Service said late Wednesday.
All but one member of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew, based in Prescott, Ariz., died June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire — the largest loss of firefighters' lives since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hotshot crews are the cream of the crop, recruited from other fire agencies to staff elite teams that take on the toughest, most dangerous assignments.
"I would relate it to special operations in the military branch," said Pat McCarty, a former Granite Mountain Hotshot who left the unit before last year's deadly fire to start a family.
"You're sleeping in the dirt. You're eating in the dirt. Everything you do is in the dirt," all while lugging heavy equipment in packs that weigh as much as 70 pounds, McCarty said Wednesday. "It's the most intense experience."
McCarty detailed the harrowing life of a Hotshot at a hearing of the board of the Prescott Public Safety Personnel Retirement System transcribed by the local Prescott ENews website. The board is considering a request from Juliann Ashcraft, the widow of one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who died last year, for full survivor and retirement benefits even though her husband was a seasonal employee — that is, one who worked only during the height of wildfire season.
Thirteen of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were seasonal, but their families say they're being cheated out of what they're owed because the seasonal Hotshots worked far more than full-time in the face of dangers ordinary firefighters never confront.
The benefits dispute has been raging since August — part of a larger examination of how Hotshots are deployed and managed, which began shortly after the Yarnell Hill disaster.
In December, the state Industrial Commission bluntly accused the Arizona Forestry Division of "unnecessarily and unreasonably" having put the Granite Mountain Hotshots in a pointlessly hazardous situation because it "prioritized protection of non-defensible structures and pastureland over firefighter safety."
The Industrial Commission's blistering report said forestry officials underestimated the Yarnell Hill Fire, failed to follow their own guidelines for attacking such an extensive fire and miscalculated the risk in case their flawed plan went wrong.
It's against that angry backdrop that hundreds of Hotshots from several states are returning to Arizona, only about 75 miles from where the Granite Mountain crew died — and less than a week after one of the dead firefighters, Grant McKee, would have turned 22.
"No firefighters in the United States, or anywhere, get the quality of experience a Type I Hotshot crew gets," Darrell Willis, chief of the Prescott fire Wildland Division, said at Wednesday's hearing.
"Not everyone wants to go 14 days without a shower," Willis said.
Still, McCarty, the former Hotshot, said Wednesday that his assignment with the Granite Mountain unit was "one of the most gratifying things I've ever done in my life."
But in the bitterest of ironies, it's an assignment that no one may ever have again.
Caught in a budget spiral, Prescott officials' proposed spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would eliminate the six full-time Hotshot crew positions.
City Manager Craig McConnell told the Prescott Daily Courier after a council meeting last week that even if the positions are eliminated, they could be reinstated in future years.
That wasn't good enough for council member Jim Lamerson.
"We need to be prepared with our staff, with our personnel, to defend the city," Lamerson said at the hearing.