Though the wildfire is mostly contained, a telescope has been set up as a temporary memorial at Yarnell Hill in Arizona, trained on the spot where 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters were killed while taking shelter from last month’s fast-moving blaze.
Tyler Gilliam, a captain with Santa Barbara County Fire, was one of seven county firefighters who saw that memorial in person and joined in with more than 30,000 people who attended Tuesday’s public memorial service for the fallen crew members, one of whom was Sean Misner, a Santa Ynez High School graduate.
A memorial service for Misner is planned from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday in the football stadium at Santa Ynez High School, 2975 E. Highway 246 in Santa Ynez. Click here for information about donating to his memorial fund.
The local group traveled to Arizona on their own time with support from Local 2046, driving to Prescott Valley, Ariz., on Monday and then through the fire area on their way back to Santa Barbara.
“It was something else,” he told Noozhawk.
Gilliam, who works from Fire Station 18 in Gaviota, has been with the County Fire Department since 2002, but previously worked on a hotshot team, as did five of the men who went to Tuesday’s memorial service.
Hotshot crews are specialized groups of firefighters who travel all over the country to help control wildland fires by creating a containment area around them.
“They’re kind of the tip of the spear,” Gilliam said.
Hotshot crews have responded to every major fire that has broken out recently in Santa Barbara County.
Gilliam said the hotshots may not be the first group there, because they are often coming from other states, but they tackle some of the most dangerous portions of the fire area.
“They’re really unsung,” he said. “It’s tough work.”
Many times, Gilliam said, these hotshot crews will go to the most dangerous areas where fire is still uncontrolled and use chain saws to remove brush while other hotshots follow behind with hand tools to break up minerals in the soil to stop the burning.
Hotshot crews can work up to 14-hour days, and the physical nature of the work “is unbelievable,” he said. “That’s why the camaraderie is so high.”
Losing 20 members of one crew at once would be particularly hard, Gilliam said.
Of Tuesday’s public memorial service, “it was amazing and overwhelming,” he said, adding that firefighters from across the country and around the world attended the service.
Agencies from all over Arizona stepped in so local firefighters could go off duty and attend the service.
“It was heartbreaking to see those families stand up to accept their flags,” Gilliam said.
He said he doesn’t look at Yarnell and feel fear that the same thing could happen to him or his team.
“I tend to turn analytical because we could be going to do the same thing shortly,” he said. “I’m trying to get as much info as possible. ... You’re grieving for the families, but you’re also trying to figure out what happened.”
Every spring, firefighters are briefed on historic as well as recent situations that could occur, and Gilliam expects that the Yarnell Hill Fire will be a “cornerstone” piece that other firefighters can study so more deaths can be avoided.
“This will be a lesson to all of us,” he said.