Arizona ‘Hotshots’ Lived The Meaning Of The Word

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PRESCOTT, Ariz.
(AP) — They were fathers and expectant fathers. High school football
players and former Marines. Smoke-eaters' sons and first-generation
firefighters.

What bound the members of the
Granite Mountain Hotshots together was a “love of hard work and arduous
adventure,” and a willingness to risk their lives to protect others. And
now, 19 families share a bond of grief.

All
but one of the Prescott-based crew's 20 members died Sunday when a
wind-whipped wildfire overran them on a mountainside north of Phoenix.
It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80
years and the deadliest single day for fire crews since the terror
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In the firefighting
world, “Hotshot” is the name given to those willing to go to the
hottest part of a blaze. They are the best of the best, crews filled
with adventure-seekers whose hard training ready them for the worst.

“We
are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work
hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fireline tasks,” the
group's website says. “Comforts such as beds, showers and hot meals are
not always common.”

Above all, the crew's
members prided themselves on their problem-solving, teamwork and
“ability to make decisions in a stressful environment.”

“It's
a younger man's game,” said Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, and the
statistics bear him out. Of those who died, 14 were in their 20s; their
average age was just 26.

At least three members of the crew were following in their fathers' firefighting footsteps.

Kevin
Woyjeck, 21, used to accompany his dad, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, to the Los
Angeles County Fire Department, joining in sometimes on ride-alongs. The
firehouse was like a second home to him, said Keith Mora, an inspector
with that agency.

“He wanted to become a
firefighter like his dad and hopefully work hand-in-hand,” Mora said
Monday outside of a fire station in Seal Beach, Calif., where the
Woyjeck family lives. “He was a great kid. Unbelievable sense of humor,
work ethic that was not parallel to many kids I've seen at that age. He
wanted to work very hard.”

Chris MacKenzie,
30, grew up in California's San Jacinto Valley, where father Michael was
a former captain with the Moreno Valley Fire Department. An avid
snowboarder, MacKenzie joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004, then
transferred two years ago to the Prescott Fire Department.

Dustin DeFord, 24, was a Baptist preacher's son, but it was firefighting that captured his imagination.

At
18, he volunteered for the Carter County Rural Fire Department like his
father did in his hometown of Ekalaka, Mont., according to The Billings
Gazette. Almost everyone knew DeFord in the small town where he grew up
and had worked a variety of jobs, the local sheriff said.

He
liked to cliff jump and run “Spartan Race” obstacle courses, and he
passed the physical test for the Granite Mountain crew in January 2012.

“He was one of the good ones who ever walked on this earth,” Carter County Sheriff Neil Kittelmann told the newspaper.

Many
of those killed were graduates of Prescott High. One of them was
28-year-old Clayton Whitted, who as a firefighter would work out on the
same campus where he played football for the Prescott Badgers from 2000
to 2004.

The school's football coach, Lou Beneitone, said Whitted was the type of athlete who “worked his fanny off.”

“He
wasn't a big kid, and many times in the game, he was overpowered by big
men, and he still got after it,” the coach said. “He knew, `This man in
front of me is a lot bigger and stronger than me,' but he'd try it and
he'd smile trying it.”

As a condition of hire,
each of these Hotshot members was required to pass the U.S. Forest
Service's “Arduous Work Capacity Test” – which entails completing a
3-mile hike with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes. The group also set for
its members a fitness goal of a 1.5-mile run in 10 minutes, 35 seconds;
40 sit-ups in 60 seconds; 25 pushups in 60 seconds; and seven pull-ups,
according to the crew's website.

“The nature
of our work requires us to endure physical hardships beyond most
people's experiences,” the website said. “Environmental extremes, long
hours, bad food, and steep, rugged terrain, demand that we train early
and often by running and hiking, doing core exercises, yoga, and weight
training.”

The group started in 2002 as a
fuels mitigation crew – clearing brush to starve a fire. Within six
years, they had made their transition into the “elite” Hotshot
community.

At Captain Crossfit, a warehouse
filled with mats, obstacle courses, climbing walls and acrobatic rings
near the firehouse where the Hotshots worked, trainers Janine Pereira
and Tony Burris talked about their day-to-day experiences with the crew
in what was a home away from home for most of them.

The whole group grew beards and mustaches before the fire season started but had to shave them for safety.

“They
were trying to get away with it, and finally someone was like, `No.
You've got to shave that beard,'” Pereira said. “They were the
strongest, the happiest, always smiling.”

Former
Marine Travis Turbyfill, 27, whose nickname was “Turby,” would come in
to train in the morning, then return in the afternoon with his two
daughters and wife, Stephanie, a nurse, Pereira said.

“He'd
wear these tight shorts … just to be goofy,” Pereira said. “He was in
the Marine Corps and he was a Hotshot, so he could wear those and no
one would bug him.”

Andrew Ashcraft, 29,
another Prescott High graduate, would bring his four children to the
Captain Crossfit daycare, Pereira said.

“He'd
come in in the early morning and do a workout, and then, to support his
wife, he'd do one again,” she said. “He'd carry her around sometimes and
give her a kiss in front of all his guys.”

Other members of the group were just beginning families.

Sean
Misner, 26, leaves behind a wife who is seven months pregnant, said
Mark Swanitz, principal of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in Santa
Barbara County, where Misner graduated in 2005. Marine Corps veteran
Billy Warneke, 25, and his wife, Roxanne, were expecting their first
child in December, his grandmother, Nancy Warneke, told The
Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside.

At
43, crew superintendent Eric Marsh was by far the oldest member of the
group. An avid mountain biker who grew up in the mountains of North
Carolina, Marsh became hooked on firefighting while studying biology at
Arizona State University, said Leanna Racquer, the ex-wife of Marsh's
cousin.

In April 2012, Marsh let reporters
from the ASU Cronkite News Service observe one of the crew's training
sessions. That day, they were playing out the “nightmare scenario” -
surrounded by flames, with nothing but a thin, reflective shelter
between them and incineration.

“If we're not actually doing it, we're thinking and planning about it,” Marsh said.

During that exercise, one of the new crew members “died.”

“It's not uncommon to have a rookie die,” Marsh told the news service. “Fake die, of course.”

On
Monday, more than 1,000 people crowded into the bleachers and spilled
onto the gymnasium floor at the Prescott campus of Embry-Riddle
Aeronautical University. The crowd stood for more than a minute as
firefighters in uniform walked in.

State Rep. Matt Salmon said the Hotshots had made the ultimate sacrifice: “They gave their lives for their friends.”

“It's times like today that define who we are,” he said.

When
U.S. Rep. David Schweikert asked audience members to raise their hands
if they knew one of the fallen firefighters, about a third of the crowd
did.

In a shaking voice, Fire Chief Fraijo
described a picnic he threw last month for his new recruits and their
families. Earlier Monday, he met with those same families in another
auditorium and gave them the tragic news.

“Those
families lost,” he said. “The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city
of Prescott lost. The state of Arizona and the nation lost.”

Associated
Press reporters Raquel Maria Dillon in Seal Beach, Calif., Sue Manning
in Los Angeles and Felicia Fonseca in Prescott contributed to this
story.



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