Firefighters make up a tight-knit community — even when they belong to different agencies. When 19 of the 20 wildland firefighters in Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots crew were killed June 30, fire departments all over Arizona were affected.
Casa Grande firefighter and paramedic Pete Benzing said Prescott’s fire department is about the size of Casa Grande’s.
“Imagine if Casa Grande lost one-fifth of its fire department,” he said. “We all have a relationship with everybody, even though we don’t work with them directly.”
After the Prescott hotshots were killed, all of the firefighters there were sent to “critical incident stress debriefing,” said firefighter Jim Stout, Casa Grande’s wildland fire coordinator. “It’s how we deal with post traumatic stress syndrome.”
Assistant Fire Chief Jim Morgan said most departments use that debriefing to review how a critical incident was handled and how everyone feels about it. Firefighters live and work with each other for 24-hour shifts and learn to be aware of the signs and symptoms of distress, like depression or withdrawal, in each other. When a firefighter dies or is seriously injured, the other firefighters in the department “come off their trucks” while they work through the stress.
Benzing said Prescott still needed fire protection when all of its firefighters “came off their trucks” to deal with the grief, so a regional incident management team reached out to fire departments across the state.
Stout, who fights wildland fires all over the United States, had worked with the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots and told the chief he would go alone to the memorial service if he wasn’t chosen to go with Casa Grande’s crew.
Everybody wanted to go, he said.
Casa Grande sent Stout, Benzing, Morgan, engineer Tim Hess, firefighters Kyle Wright and Bobby Gorden, Capt. Anthony Silver and Fire Chief Scott Miller on July 9, the day of the memorial service. The Yarnell fire was still burning.
Casa Grande’s fire leaders participated in the memorial. Its firefighters worked at the central Yavapai fire station and watched the service on television. On July 10 they covered the fire station near Prescott’s airport, handled a motor vehicle accident and participated in two funerals and the loading of three caskets on military aircraft.
“I think I cried more in two days than I did in my entire life, watching that process,” Benzing said. “For us who went, it was an honor.”
Morgan said the funerals, memorials and debriefings lasted more than two weeks. Two hundred sixteen agencies from across the United States assisted in some fashion, including 43 Arizona agencies.
Firefighters even came from Canada and Australia, Stout said.
“It was an honor for us to represent our city,” Benzing said. “It was an honor and a privilege to cover their city.”
And, he said, it was emotional. “It was one of those career events that I hope I never have to go through again.”
Stout said it was humbling to be allowed to serve Prescott’s residents. The firefighters were there to take care of Prescott, but its residents went out of their way to take care of them.
Benzing said residents hugged them in the grocery store and left thank you notes on their fire truck.
Prescott was still burying firefighters on July 15 and 16 when Benzing returned with Hess, firefighter Nano Rodriguez and Capt. Brandon Baker. They covered a suburban Prescott station, visited the Granite Mountain Hotshots station that had become a memorial site, assisted a heart attack victim and cared for victims of other medical emergencies, including a fire chief from Rochester, N.Y., and an Ironwood Hotshots firefighter.
The Ironwood Hotshots from the Northwest Fire District outside Tucson had served for nine days, assisting at all the funerals and the memorial service, Stout said. They took a day off to see their families, returned to work, took one day to debrief and left the following day to fight a fire in Montana.
Firefighters deal with stress by talking about it with other firefighters, he said. They don’t usually talk about traumatic incidents to their families. They talk to other firefighters who have experienced similar things.
“Every one of us has seen some pretty horrible stuff,” Stout said. “You just move on.”
Benzing said he uses humor and sports to deal with stress. He goes hiking with his wife and plays ice hockey with Mesa firefighters.
Prescott’s firefighters had been so busy in the first week after the deaths that the grief had not hit them yet, he said.
“I feel for the guys going back to work. It was a week and a half later, and they are back on the truck, running calls. That’s when it’s actually sinking in.”
Morgan said there are more than 100 wildfire hotshot crews in the nation, 15 in Arizona.