Town shows its gratitude for the sacrifices of the Yarnell Hill 19

YARNELL – A fire bell rang 19 times on Sunday afternoon, once for every member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who lost his life when the Yarnell Hill Fire abruptly changed direction and roared over them.

For six years, this small town between Wickenburg and Prescott has rung the bell each June 30 at 4:42 p.m., the time the hotshots deployed their fire shelters in a last-ditch chance for survival.

This was the first time the anniversary was on a Sunday, which was the day the tragedy occurred in 2013. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were among the crews protecting the town of 650 from the 8,400-acre Yarnell Hill Fire.

Francis Lechner, president of the Yarnell Area Resource Group, said residents still feel the loss.

“I watched the crowd today as I wandered through, and I could see exchanges of people who remember what it was like six years ago,” she said. “A lot of folks have moved on, but there’s still a lot of pathos and pain as people remember what that day felt like.”

Most mentions of the wildfire focus on the loss of life. The blaze resulted in the largest loss of firefighter lives since the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the deadliest wildfire in Arizona history.

Left behind is a town that might owe its continued existence to the sacrifices made by the 19 firefighters. Lechner said all Yarnell residents try to live every day with a sense of gratitude.

“The loss of the hotshots made our survival possible,” she said.

A photo is hung as a placeholder for a proposed monument in Yarnell Hill Fire Memorial Park. (Photo by Grayson Schmidt/Cronkite News)

Yarnell is a town looking to heal, grow and continue to express gratitude for the sacrifices made by the hotshots. With more than 100 homes destroyed by the flames, it isn’t something that happens overnight, or even in a few years, Yarnell Fire Chief Jeff Shearer said.

“I mean it’s going to take time, that’s just the way it is,” he said. “This was a pretty traumatic thing that happened here and a lot of people did lose everything that they owned.”

Shearer said one word to describe Yarnell after the loss of the hotshots was “hurt.” But every resident saw a need to keep going and rebuild.

“It’s just something you’ve got to do,” Shearer said. “You’ve got to move forward.”

Shearer said he’s seen a more connected community in the wake of the 2013 tragedy.

“We have more events, we do more things together,” he said. “Things are getting built. The town is changing, we’re getting new people in. It’s a tight-knit town.”

The American Community Survey estimated a 19% growth in Yarnell’s population from 2014 to 2017. Yarnell Fire Department bookkeeper Nina Bour-Beau said she’s seen that growth.

“I’ve seen the town grow. I’ve seen the town be more hopeful,” she said. “I’ve seen newer businesses come up here and open and stay. I’ve seen people still have that feeling of ‘Let’s help.'”

As Yarnell evolves, Shearer said, the Yarnell Hill Fire and the sacrifices made by the Granite Mountain 19 will always be a part of those who were here in June 2013.

“Every time we hear about Yarnell, this is going to be something that’s going to be embedded into our hearts and our souls for the rest of our lives,” he said.

Video by Grayson Schmidt/Cronkite News

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.