I recently wrote about a wildfire burning on the outskirts of my hometown and how it brought up emotions of fear and empathy for my friends still there. Fortunately, the Doce Fire was dealt with without the loss of life and very little property damage. When I heard that fire was contained, I figured I could relax and get back to life without having the issue lingering in the back of my mind.
Then on Sunday morning, I saw the news reports about another fire south of Prescott called the Yarnell Fire that had been started from lightning. The community of Yarnell is on the opposite end of the county from Chino Valley, and I recall thinking that, as unfortunate as another wildfire was, this one did not seem so bad.
On Monday morning, that illusion was shattered.
My news feed on Facebook was filled with the news that 19 firefighters were caught up in the Yarnell Fire, which had tripled in size on Sunday, and killed. According to The Daily Courier, this made the fire the deadliest in Arizona history, and the death count was the highest nationwide since 1933, when a fire near Los Angeles killed 25 firefighters.
That news alone was sobering enough. The horror was compounded when I found out that a friend from school was among the firefighters killed.
The news had gotten out before the official list was released to the public. I found out through Facebook that Jesse Steed was one of the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished in the fire. I found out because his older brother had posted a photograph on his page in memory of Jesse.
I sat silent on the couch for about five minutes, unable to move beyond the moment. I hadn’t really spoke with Jesse since high school. The same could be said for a lot of people I was friends with; despite the advancement of social media, not everybody is connected as well as they could be. Despite the distance, the news hit me like a ton of bricks.
One of the good things about living in a small town is the close bonds that are formed. Granted, you have your cliques and your various social circles, but there are very few degrees of separation. I graduated from high school 18 years ago and didn’t really have much contact with Jesse in all that time, but the effect that the news of his death felt the same as it would have if I had just had dinner with him a few days ago.
About an hour later, I returned to Facebook, wondering if the official list of names had been released and praying to God that none of my other friends were among the dead, knowing full well some others had gone on to become firefighters. The list was still unavailable, but the news of Jesse’s death had obviously spread to my other friends, as they were starting to post tributes and thoughts of days gone by.
Here’s part of what a mutual friend, Aaron Newman, had to say about Jesse:
“It must have been a decade or so since we had last talked. Even more since we had spent some time together. Yet on an early December day before the annual Christmas Parade, we met for a few minutes, introduced each other to our children, I met his wife, and it was like a minute had never been missed. After all, we weren’t just childhood friends, lifelong friends, we were brothers. Distant for a time but now back together. We joked, we laughed, told a couple stories of our times growing up together, and caught up on what our families were doing. We hugged, planned future camping trips, dune trips, and laughed how we would grow old together. No, no time had passed, we were as close as ever after just a few minutes. Though we talked a few times in the months that passed, this re-connection on a December day would be the last time I would see him. I lost this brother yesterday.”
Another particularly touching tribute came from our friend, Garic Hayes:
“When I heard the news this morning that Jesse was among the 19 firefighters who lost their lives I was hit with an avalanche of emotions and memories. I remember the first day I met Jesse I instantly wanted to be his friend he seemed so cool to me. Even though I wasn’t as cool as him he did become my friend. He spent a ton of nights over at my house and me over at his. We would sneak out every single time. We would tie string across the road and would rearrange road construction barricades and steal street signs. I remember meeting up with the rest of the group one night to go and crash a slumber party that Beth Bradshaw was having. I remember we egged her house and then ran all the way to the community center and hid the baseball dugouts. Her dad followed us, caught us, and made us go back and apologize. I remember walking through the town of Chino Valley in the middle of the night to go and throw mud clods at Courtney Holley’s house until her brothers came out and yelled at us. All the memories I have of all the crazy stuff we did seem to include Jesse. I could go on for days with stories … some of which probably shouldn’t be told, but most of all I remember him always being nice to me. I didn’t always have the right shoes or the right clothes and when it came to sports I didn’t even come close to measuring up with the others in the group but Jesse was one of the few who never made me feel out of place. Even towards the end of high school when our lives took different directions I always knew he would be there if I needed him. Before he was a hero as a firefighter, before he was a hero as a Marine, he was a hero as a friend. Rest in peace brother, friend.”
Another friend, Syndi Wallin, didn’t mention Jesse by name, but from what she had to say, it reminded me that I wasn’t the only one impacted by his death.
“It’s weird here in Houston, as I went through my day with no one mentioning the loss of the fire fighters in Arizona. I sat in silence mourning the loss of 19 amazing people, growing up with one of them, as everyone in Houston goes about their normal day. People ask what’s wrong (cause I am never quiet), but if I speak, I cry. I can’t imagine what the families are going through. Bless them all lord and ease their pain. They are all with you now and we know you will take good care of them.”
You never really know how much you impact someone until you pass on. I spent most of Monday relatively functional but still numb at the news. I was starting to feel a little better that night when I found out that not only was I not alone with the world about a friend’s death, but I was not even alone in the house.
My boyfriend, Todd, seemed out of sorts, and when I asked him what was wrong, he told me he’d lost a friend in the fire, as well. It turned out that he was friends with another of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Andrew Ashcraft. The two of them had known each other when they were both in Illinois.
On Monday morning, Todd comforted me after I found out about Jesse. On Monday night, I was returning the favor.
Todd and I sat on the front porch, cloaked in darkness, for at least a half-hour, talking about our friends and how their deaths were a reminder of our own mortality. It will probably be a few days before we can fully process the real world again, but it’s amazing how one fire and the tragedy it wreaks can bring people closer together. If only we could think to come closer together in times when tragedy is not at our front door.
Of course, I knew only one of the 19 firefighters. I have friends who still live around Prescott and knew many of them. I guess I shouldn’t feel so bad.
Sadly, there are some that see this fire as an omen, and the death of these firefighters as glad tidings. You can probably guess which hate group I’m talking about, but since a few of you might still be shaking the sleep out of your eyes, let me tell you.
The Westboro Baptist Church has been making its presence known on Twitter, praising God for a consuming fire and vowing to picket the firefighters’ funerals. There has been a Facebook page established with people vowing to keep the Westboro folks out of Prescott. I hope they succeed, even though the hate mongers enjoy the same freedom of speech that we all do.
I took a break after writing this to let my dog out to do his business. As he chased birds and squirrels around the yard, I thought for a moment how nice it would be to be a dog for a while, ignorant of how massive this tragedy was. Unfortunately, life does not work that way, and it’s time to face the reality that we have lost friends, brothers, heroes and shining examples of good.
Despite what a very insignificant minority might think, Jesse Steed, Andrew Ashcraft and the other firefighters who died Sunday are heroes. They fell in the line of duty, so it is now up to us to make sure their deaths were meaningful, and that their memories live on.
The Yarnell Fire has killed 19 and laid most of the little town it is named for to waste. The days moving forward will be difficult, but we must trudge ahead. It is the only thing we can do.