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Two years later: Arizona, nation remember 19 fallen Yarnell hotshots

PHOENIX — At 4:42 p.m. on June 30, 2013, 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives when they were overtaken by the Yarnell Hill Fire. It was the deadliest wildfire in American history since 1933.

The crew members had been in a relatively safe position on a ridge top. For an unknown reason and without notifying anyone, they moved down the mountainside through an unburned area where they were trapped by a wall of flames when winds shifted the fire in their direction.

Two years later, the community they were defending and the nation were set to remember the young men.

Prescott, where the hotshots were based, scheduled a memorial at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday on the Courthouse Plaza. While Prescott Fire Chief Dennis Light said it would be a “toned down affair,” he planned for people to become emotional when they rang a bell for each of the fallen men.

“Every time, it does have a natural tendency to trigger an emotional response from those who are close to our fallen brothers,” he said.

Prescott is planning a private memorial for the hotshots’ families, who settled a lawsuit with the state on Monday.

The settlement announced by state Attorney General Mark Brnovich will pay the families $50,000 each. Some vowed to donate the money to a new wildland firefighter safety foundation. The state agreed to enhance safety training for wildland fire crews and a host of other changes in how it oversees fires and crews. It also will pay another seven families $10,000 each.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered state office flags be flown at half-staff to honor the hotshots.

Yarnell has a remembrance ceremony planned for 4 p.m. At 4:42, they plan to have a moment of silence to honor the hotshots.

“That’s when the death certificates indicated that they had died,” Chuck Tidey with the Yarnell-Peeples Valley Chamber of Commerce said.

Tidey said they expect the event to be made up primarily of locals, as the timing may make it difficult for people from out of town to get there on time.

“It’s more of a local thing, where we all just get together and basically, hug, and talk about what happened and what’s happened since the fire,” he said.

The land where the crew lost their lives will be auctioned off Tuesday. The state Parks Department hopes to be the winning bidder and turn the 320-acre site outside Yarnell into the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park.

“This is it. We have to get to this point or we can’t do anything else,” former Prescott Fire Chief Darrell Willis said. “We can’t memorialize them appropriately until the land is in the appropriate hands. We can’t move dirt and start putting crosses in, things of that nature.”

The town lost 127 homes in the blaze. Frances Lechner, vice president of the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group, said 77 building permits have been issued in the past two years and construction has begun on a majority of those.

“What we have are 43 new homes that are either completed or in the process,” she said. “That’s an extraordinary rate of recovery.”

As promising as the housing recovery is, Lechner said there are still concerns about the town’s infrastructure. With the loss of so many homes in the town, she said property tax revenue has severely fallen off, making it difficult for Yarnell to repair and maintain major infrastructure.

“We continue to do fundraisers … but the schools, the fire department and the Yarnell Water Improvement Association all are going to very much need help,” she said.

The loss of the hotshots and homes was difficult for the town to deal with, Lechner said, but there has been some good to rise from the ashes.

“If anything, I think it’s really made us a stronger (and) tighter community,” she said. “A lot of our residents are older seniors, they stay in their home a lot, there wasn’t a lot of connection, and now in the wake of the fire people are getting to know each other through helping.”

KTAR’s Bob McClay, Mark Remillard and Jim Cross and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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