The painful process of moving forward from disaster
Prescott — The restored marquee sign at what once was the Senator Drive-In Theatre summed up this community’s mood on Independence Day: Prayerful yet patriotic. Sad, yes, but proud. Painfully proud.
The sign is at the head of the Senator Highway that leads into Prescott from the south. It once told residents of the movie playing that evening in what is now a meadow spotted with trees. On Thursday, the individually placed letters read, “HONORING THE GRANITE MTN HOTSHOTS AND OUR NATION’S BIRTH.”
American and Arizona flags hung below the message.
I watched the city’s fireworks show Thursday from a somewhat distant hillside along Haisley Road south of town, about half a mile from the Senator Drive-In sign. From the row of houses hugging the edge of the hill above those of us who parked on the roadsidecame a loud and unmistakably pride-filled voice of a young man just after the finale.
“God bless America and the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters!”
It’s been a week. The grim statistics are well known: Nineteen young men lost their lives fighting the Yarnell Hill fire about 45 miles south of here, the largest single loss of firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
We have heard from politicians, we have heard from locals who went to school with the lost firefighters and even some of the firefighters’ immediate families. Everyone was understandably shocked, then saddened, then slowly arereadying to move on.
The annual slate of rodeo performances that have been Prescott’s Independence Week hallmark since 1888, dubbed “The World’s Oldest Rodeo,” were not cancelled. Instead they have been augmented by reverence and remembrance. A riderless horse, firefighters’ boots in its stirrups, has been led around the arena before that day’s competition. As I write this, the annual parade was still set for Saturday morning, the route circling the Yavapai County Court House in downtown Prescott.
The colors are red, white, blue and purple – this last one to honor fallen firefighters. Nineteen purple-hued rockets were shot into the air as part of Thursday’s fireworks show, which showed nothing that appeared as though any of its usual bravado was trimmed back. This was a celebration of life, of sacrifice, of freedom.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it helps us bear their burden better. They don’t forget the Alamo in San Antonio. They aren’t forgetting the lost children of Newtown, Conn. They won’t forget the men whose lives wildfire took so cruelly in Yarnell.
Today a unique procession will make its way from Phoenix to Prescott: Nineteen hearses — certainly more than most of us have ever seen in one motorcade — each carrying the body of one of these firefighters with motorcycle escort. A public memorial is scheduled for Tuesday in the local hockey team’s arena, a last chance to say goodbye, and, then, to take lessons of the past week or so to heart to instruct us in each of our lives.
The investigations are under way. Was there a way to have prevented this loss of life? I don’t know; I’m not an expert in fire science. Many times over the years, as Arizona’s wildfires seem to get more destructive, I have asked myself whether we should have allowed nature to do more of its job of cleansing its forestsback before people and structures were involved.
The wildlands themselves have used fire as a check on overgrowth for eons before we arrived. I’ve looked at photos of Arizona’s forest lands from more than a century ago and was more than mildly surprised at how few trees there were compared to today.
I know that with all our technological advances, with all the full-size airliners used now to dump slurry onto the fire line, fighting wildfiremostly involves human beings personally facing down searing heat and flames fed by huge amounts of dry fuels. We can only hope the investigators can provide answers beyond Yarnell Hill.
It’s at once inspiring and breathtaking to know that young people want to do such dangerous work on behalf of all of us, and will continue to want to do it, long after the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots are laid to rest.
It’s a part of the fabric of our nation we celebrate each Fourth of July: Volunteer spirit and a great love of country and of neighbor. These are the kinds of feelings that are festooned in red, white, blue and purple.
They are shouted from hilltops. They are cherished in hearts. They steel us for the future.
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.