Covering the Yarnell Tragedy

It’s been a little more than a month since Arizona witnessed one of the worst tragedies in its history. On June 30, 2013, a wind-fueled wildfire trapped and killed 19 members of the Prescott-based Granite Mountain Hotshots, leaving only one survivor who was nearby. The wild land firefighters were positioned to try to block the blaze from destroying the small town of Yarnell, which ended up losing more than 100 homes. As a photojournalist, it’s hard to prepare for the kind of drama that ensues after a tragedy of this magnitude.

The crew has been honored by a number of tributes, from a private honor-guard ceremony at the coroner's office in Phoenix to impromptu public services, since their deaths on June 30.

The crew has been honored by a number of tributes, from a private honor-guard ceremony at the coroner’s office in Phoenix to impromptu public services, since their deaths on June 30.

Much of my time spent covering the tragedy was in Prescott, where most of the firefighters were based. An amazing memorial, which became a place of pilgrimage for family, friends and firefighters from around the country, was erected on the fence surrounding the station of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Bernard Carlsen is overcome with emotion as he talks about his escape from the Yarnell Hill fire. Carlsen's car wouldn't start and he had to make it out on foot. ( Aaron Lavinsky / Arizona Republic / July 1, 2013 )

Bernard Carlsen is overcome with emotion as he talks about his escape from the Yarnell Hill fire. Carlsen’s car wouldn’t start and he had to make it out on foot. ( Aaron Lavinsky / Arizona Republic / July 1, 2013 )

Carrie Parker-Morena (left) is consoled by her aunt, Janae Parker Haremza. Wade Parker, the brother of Parker-Morena and the nephew of Haremza, was among the 19 firefighters killed June 30 in the Yarnell Hill Fire. (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

Carrie Parker-Morena (left) is consoled by her aunt, Janae Parker Haremza. Wade Parker, the brother of Parker-Morena and the nephew of Haremza, was among the 19 firefighters killed June 30 in the Yarnell Hill Fire. (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

Liz Moore, of Surprise, embraces Hailey Whitwell at the memorial set up at the Granite Mountain Hot Shot's fire station in Prescott on Wednesday, July 3, 2013.  (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

Liz Moore, of Surprise, embraces Hailey Whitwell at the memorial set up at the Granite Mountain Hot Shot’s fire station in Prescott on Wednesday, July 3, 2013. (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

 Chris Lyons shares an emotional moment with Steve Fine after setting up 19 American flags at a memorial at the Granite Mountain Hot Shot's fire station in Prescott on Wednesday, July 3, 2013.  (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

Chris Lyons shares an emotional moment with Steve Fine after setting up 19 American flags at a memorial at the Granite Mountain Hot Shot’s fire station in Prescott on Wednesday, July 3, 2013. (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

Covering a situation, like a small-town memorial, can be very tense. People are hesitant to speak and you have to balance your need to make images with your subjects’ need for privacy. Most of the people I approached were open to speaking, while others needed private time to mourn and pay their respects.

The bodies of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain hotshot crew killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire are escorted from downtown Phoenix back to Prescott along Interstate 17 North on Sunday, July 7, 2013 in Phoenix. (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

The bodies of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain hotshot crew killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire are escorted from downtown Phoenix back to Prescott along Interstate 17 North on Sunday, July 7, 2013 in Phoenix. (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

Never having actually been to the fire zone, it was hard to really understand the immense loss until I witnessed the hearse procession from Phoenix back to Prescott. Seeing 19 hearses, each escorting a fallen firefighter, was an extremely emotional sight. People from around the state came to watch the procession, lining up on highway overpasses to wish the 19 farewell.

Brendan McDonough, the surviving 20th member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, makes sure that an American flag stands upright on a practice green at Gainey Ranch Golf Club in Scottsdale on Aug. 2, 2013 (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

Brendan McDonough, the surviving 20th member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, makes sure that an American flag stands upright on a practice green at Gainey Ranch Golf Club in Scottsdale on Aug. 2, 2013 (Aaron Lavinsky/The Arizona Republic)

The lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, has rarely been seen in public since the tragedy. I had the opportunity the other night to cover a golf fundraiser in which he spoke. It was inspiring to see someone who has been through so much come out and rally to support the families who lost their love ones only a month ago. This is perhaps the last photo that I’ll shoot that involves the Yarnell tragedy since my time with the Republic is coming to a close and I’m not sure where I’ll be a month from now. As an intern, I’m thankful that I was given the opportunity to cover an event as powerful as the Yarnell tragedy along with the paper’s talented staff photographers, but the experience makes me feel fortunate for all the baseball games, press conferences and city hall debates that I have to cover on a day-to-day basis. The Arizona Republic did an incredible job covering the fire and I was lucky to be part of such a capable team. The Republic’s Yarnell coverage, in it’s entirety, can be found here.

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