By Pastor Dave Alberts
The “Yarnell Hill” fire is now recognized as the deadliest wildfire in Arizona history. In addition to the deaths of the 19 Prescott
firemen, the fire destroyed 121 homes in the unincorporated communities of Yarnell and Peeples Valley. In total, Yarnell lost one fourth of all its households and 8,400 acres of land were burned. These factors made the Yarnell Hill disaster a matter of nationwide interest and concern.
Grief shook the close-knit communities, especially Prescott, hometown of the nineteen firefighters who perished. Nearly everyone in the city knew at least one of the firefighters or their family members. During the initial hours, emergency agencies and churches struggled with how to best address the city’s communal grief and the influx of refugees from Yarnell amidst the smell of smoke and the fog of war. Prayer and recalled scripture helped clarify what needed to be done and the spirit through which it needed to be accomplished.
Area United Methodist churches and their staff members were soon engaged in specialized service. On the first evening, Patti Blackwood, Pastoral Assistant at Prescott UMC, was asked by the city to help inform Hotshot families that their loved ones, brothers, husbands and fathers, had died defending the people and property of Yarnell. New tasks came with the morning, as many in the community turned to the United Methodist churches as reliable clearing houses of information related to the community response and memorial events honoring the fallen firefighters. At Prescott UMC, there was also a “celebration of life” to be planned for one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Pastor Don Benton of Chino Valley UMC and Pastor Wendy Swanson from Prescott Valley UMC were instrumental in ecumenical efforts to provide pastoral care at hydration stations to the thousands of persons attending the largest of the memorial services for the Granite Mountain Hotshots in the mid-summer heat. Companies of firefighters from around the country, Arizona dignitaries, and the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden were on hand to remember the fallen and offer pledges of support to survivors.
Another important early need filled by United Methodist churches was fielding telephone calls from persons around the country wishing to convey condolences, offer memory items, or deal with their own grief and loss. Several of the most touching contacts were received from United Methodist churches from communities such as Sandy Hook, and towns impacted by Hurricane Katrina. St. Mark United Methodist Church in Tucson was one of the first to respond with a poster of support signed by church members.
Items intended to comfort fire fighter families and the citizens of Yarnell poured in from across the country to Prescott UMC for distribution. For example, United Methodists from Richardson, Texas sent blankets individually stitched with fire fighter names to be presented to their families. Prayer quilts arrived from Dayspring UMC in Tempe, and shawls came from Green Valley Community UMC. Baby clothes arrived from Mississippi, five hundred “Hearts of Hope” ornaments from Newtown, Connecticut, and “Hearts and Hugs” stuffed bears came from United Methodists in Wildwood, Texas. Dedicated local church volunteers helped fulfill the desires of donor churches for the distribution of these and other items.
United Methodists were immediately in the thick of the response for the people of Yarnell who had lost their homes and means of livelihood. Some of their best initial efforts were made through community organizations and ecumenical partnerships. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army were in early and accomplished much to meet immediate human need. Some United Methodists volunteered to assist Samaritan’s Purse as they cleared rubble with much appreciated heavy machinery, and sift through the ashes of burned out homes for important personal items. Especially impressive were the efforts of the Prescott Lion’s Clubs with many United Methodists in their membership, to gather canned food and provide short-term funding to help Yarnell businesses stay open despite the heavy loss of income.
In a public statement, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that it had been determined that churches and other charitable organizations could handle the housing and infrastructure challenges in Yarnell without governmental assistance. While this was a major disappointment to many with first-hand knowledge of the depth of the need, people of Christian concern and others of good will stepped in with great generosity and continued to raise needed resources to fill the gap.
One significant ecumenical hero in the midst of the Yarnell tragedy has been the Reverend Paul Jones, Pastor of the Yarnell Presbyterian Church and a founding leader within the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group (http://www.yarnellhillrecoverygroup.org). Pastor Paul serves as a leading spokesman in efforts to raise $6,000,000 for community restoration and the needs for the people of Yarnell. Pastor Paul received a check in the amount of $16,000 by a delegation from Prescott United Methodist Church for permanent housing for uninsured and underinsured individuals and families in Yarnell.
With the guidance of the Yarnell Hill Recovery team, ecumenical partners, including Mennonite Builders and Habitat for Humanity, are leading the home rebuilding efforts and much progress is being made. The many larger ticket financial challenges involved in renewing the community’s badly damaged infrastructure (currently estimated at more than $500,000) are being addressed by Yavapai County government and the Yavapai County Community Foundation among others. Much more remains to be done.
While the communities of Prescott and Yarnell have been forever changed and will always recall the sacrifices of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, it is with thanksgiving to God and many caring congregations and denominational groups that they look with hope toward a brighter day.