Prescott's July 4 Celebrations Honor Fallen Firefighters

For the nearly 700 firefighters trying to smother the Arizona blaze that killed 19 of their own on Sunday, July 4th was another day on the hill. An interagency investigation team was collecting evidence to figure out what went wrong. And in nearby Prescott — home to the Granite Mountain Hotshots — the town went ahead with its holiday celebration.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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MONTAGNE: President Obama celebrated the Fourth of July at the White House where the U.S. Marine Band and the pop group Fun performed. Obama encouraged Americans to remember history, the Revolutionary War and the patriots who fought for independence more than 200 years ago. He thanked the service members who continue to protect that liberty today.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You defended our nation at home and abroad. You fought for our nation's beliefs, to make the world a better and safer place. People in scattered corners of the world live in peace today, are free to write their own futures because of you. And we've got all of you here today. We've got Army.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OBAMA: We've got Navy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MONTAGNE: Celebrating Independence Day at the White House. The mood was far more somber in Arizona yesterday where some 700 firefighters were hard at work. They spent the Fourth trying to put out a massive wildfire that took the lives of 19 of their own. Crews now have that fire mostly contained. At the same time, a team of investigators is collecting evidence to find out why the tragic loss of life happened. And in nearby Prescott, home to many of the dead, the town went ahead with its holiday celebration. NPR's Nathan Rott was there.

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NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: On the surface, it was like any other Fourth of July in Prescott, Arizona. Thousands of people pouring onto four baseball fields - playing catch, eating funnel cakes, listening to music. But it's hard to say that anything's normal in Prescott this week.

DON DEVENDORF: Less than 100 hours ago, the city of Prescott...

ROTT: Don Devendorf is a chief with the Prescott Fire Department.

DEVENDORF: ...lost 19 of the bravest, most well-trained, respectful and skilled wild and firefighters ever to be dispatched into the forest to attempt to save lives and property.

ROTT: And Devendorf began Prescott's famous fireworks show with name...

DEVENDORF: John Percin.

(APPLAUSE)

ROTT: After name...

DEVENDORF: ...Clayton Whitted.

(APPLAUSE)

ROTT: ...after name.

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ROTT: It was just one of countless tributes to the firefighters that lost their lives to the Yarnell Hill Fire last weekend. But the town of Prescott, an old Western town, has thrown a party during the first week of July since the frontier days. They call it the oldest rodeo in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Prescott, Prescott, Prescott.

ROTT: Marty Borgelt is one of the rodeo organizers.

MARTY BORGELT: So this is our 126th year.

ROTT: And on Sunday, when word came that the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew had been burnt over 30 miles southwest of town, she knew how much more important this year's rodeo would be.

BORGELT: Most of those hotshots grew up here and their families and they, you know, they - it's part of the community. There was never a thought of not having the rodeo.

ROTT: She says the town needs it. In a week where everything else is so abnormal...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get around that barrel. Come on.

ROTT: Prescott, she says, needs something it's known for 126 years.

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ROTT: And few people need something normal as much as these guys.

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ROTT: They are all former members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

P.J. FISHER: You're our captain. My what? Fourth and fifth season? Yeah, '08 to 2011.

ROTT: P.J. Fisher was with the shots for five seasons. His captain, Aaron Lawson, for three.

AARON LAWSON: And we'd be eating, like, out of a bag, you know, eating MREs and feel like...

ROTT: Sitting on the upper deck at the rodeo, they tell stories and share memories.

LAWSON: When we got together, like, around the campfire or, when we're spiking out, that's when the stuff came out.

ROTT: Stuff, Lawson says, like rapping.

LAWSON: I used to rap in the buggy all the time.

ROTT: Mike Savage was on hotshot crews for three years. He says his crew was his family.

MIKE SAVAGE: We slept in the dirt. We ate each others booger.

ROTT: In the days since he heard about his friends' deaths, he's thought back to those days on the buggy, their crew truck, and he's tried to rewrite one of their old raps.

SAVAGE: Firefighter is the life we live. We're the idol of many young, growing kids. Searching the country far and wide, we're counting the days as the days pass us by. This job is like heaven. It's nothing like 24/7. Wake 'em in the morning smell the coffee roast. It's making me choke.

ROTT: It's not easy for these guys. Tears come as quickly as the laughs. But they, like the rest of the town, are trying to get through the pain by remembering the good times, by holding on to what they know.

SAVAGE: We're at the world's oldest rodeo having a beer and celebrating, like, because I know that's exactly what they'd be doing at this time.

ROTT: This, he says, is exactly what they would have wanted. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Prescott, Arizona.

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