PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — Prescott town leaders honoring the deaths of 19 hometown firefighters are retooling the over-the-top celebration that has long made this Old West town the place to be on Independence Day.
One thing is for certain: There will still be fireworks.
The booming bursts may remind some of the wildfire, still burning, that claimed all but one of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew on Sunday, but the hilltop community of 40,000 is determined to mourn its dead without compromising its traditions. The mantra for days has been, “celebration, not grief.”
Families of the fallen firefighters are expected to attend, as are more than 10,000 revelers from all over Arizona.
“This is our Super Bowl, our main event. This is it for us,” Prescott spokesman Pete Wertheim said. “The whole town will be there.”
Though much of the southwest remains a tinderbox, fire officials say they will be able to deploy the pyrotechnics safely, pouring water on the detonation area and putting fire suppression crews on standby.
Festivities are expected to last at least 10 hours and include an all-day carnival, 40-foot waterslide, motocross competition and a nighttime dance at the town’s outdoor rodeo.
A member of the fire department will speak in honor of the dead before a 30-minute fireworks display.
American flags have proliferated in the past 24 hours on the quaint streets of this cowboy town, as have handmade memorials to the Hotshot crew.
Hotels have long since run out of room for out-of-towners hoping to attend the celebration at Pioneer Park, a 10-minute drive from the makeshift memorial residents have built outside the Hotshot headquarters.
Violent wind gusts Sunday turned what was believed to be a manageable lightning-strike forest fire outside the town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for the highly qualified Hotshots, most of whom were in the prime of their lives.
Charred pine trees resembling burnt toothpicks now poke from the hillsides in the fire’s wake. The higher mountains behind the hills are speckled by pink retardant.
Sunday’s tragedy raised questions of whether the Hotshot crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and dry conditions that caused the fire to explode.
A team of nationwide forest managers and safety experts is looking into what went wrong. In addition to examining radio logs, the fire site and weather reports, they’ll also talk to the crew’s sole survivor, a 21-year-old lookout who warned his fellow firefighters and friends that the wildfire was switching directions.
Nearly 700 firefighters continue to fight the blaze, which has burned about 13 square miles.
The fire was 45 percent contained Thursday, but that number should quickly rise as crews fill in the gaps between areas already contained on the northeast and southeast sections of the fire, said spokeswoman Karen Takai.
“Everything’s starting to connect now. That’s why you’re going to start seeing a jump in the percentage of containment,” she said Thursday.
Winds were light, but gusts and thunderstorms are still a threat, and it’s still very dry, she said.
Hundreds of residents remain evacuated and at least 114 buildings have been destroyed, according to a tally released by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office. Many of the evacuees are staying with friends and relatives in Prescott, where they have been attending memorial services and public meetings about the tragedy.
Families of the fallen men, evacuees and firefighters from across the state are expected to attend the town’s holiday celebrations.
“We feel that this is something they world want,” said Prescott Special Events Manager Becky Karcie. “This is a celebration not only for America, but for the lost lives. Sometimes you just need a diversion.”
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