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(AP File Photo)
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Anniversary of Yarnell Hill firefighters’ deaths remains painful day

(AP File Photo)

PHOENIX — The founder of the Granite Mountain Hotshots is still living the painful tragedy of losing 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire on this date four years ago.

Former Prescott Fire Chief Darrell Willis regarded the 19 firefighters as sons. They died June 30, 2013 when a sudden wind shift triggered by a thunderstorm changed the direction of the Yarnell Hill Fire and trapped them in a canyon.

The lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, who was on a hilltop serving as a lookout for the crew and could only watch helplessly as his fellow firefighters were overtaken by the fire.

Willis founded the nation’s first municipal hotshot crew and said it seemed like only yesterday since the tragedy happened.

“I’m still living it with the families,” Willis said. “They lost loved ones and there’s still a lot of unanswered questions. These were the finest young men I’ve ever known in my life.

“I’ll do whatever I can to help any family member or friend to move through this tragic process.”

In this photo shot by firefighter Andrew Ashcraft, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots watch a growing wildfire that later swept over and killed the crew of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Ariz., Sunday, June 30, 2013. Ashcraft texted the photo to his wife, Juliann, but died later that day. (AP Photo)

In this photo shot by firefighter Andrew Ashcraft, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots watch a growing wildfire that later swept over and killed the crew of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Ariz., Sunday, June 30, 2013. Ashcraft texted the photo to his wife, Juliann, but died later that day. (AP Photo)

Arizona Sen. John McCain contributed an opinion piece to the Daily Courier in Prescott on the anniversary, which read in part:

“Four years ago, 19 brave members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire … These heroes risked everything to protect the lives and property of all Arizonans, dedicating themselves with passion and courage to serve a cause much greater than themselves. I did not have the honor of knowing these fine men personally, but reading news reports and listening to the personal accounts of their loved ones offers us a glimpse into how they enriched the lives of everyone around them. Perhaps most telling is each man’s down-to-earth nature. All of them shared the traits of true, unforgettable heroes.”

Willis has been at this week’s Goodwin Fire just south of Prescott and said knowing that (Friday) was the anniversary of the tragedy has been at the top of mind for the fire commanders and crews.

“There’s been a cultural change since June 30, 2013. Hotshot crews from several Western states have been here at the Goodwin Fire and they’ve tried to stop by the memorial site in Yarnell and pay their respects.

“When they finally get to go home many of them will make the detour to see that site.”

Bells will ring at 4:42 p.m. to honor the 19 at the Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza, a church in Yarnell and at the base of the hill where the Granite Mountain Hotshots made their final stand.

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