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July 4 in Prescott: Balance of grief, patriotism

Updated: 2013-07-04 07:51
( Agencies)

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — The notoriously rambunctious annual rodeo contest in Prescott added a solemn new ritual this week: a cowboy leading a riderless horse around the outdoor arena, a fire helmet sitting on its saddle, fire boots resting in the stirrups.

July 4 in Prescott: Balance of grief, patriotism

People attend a memorial service at Prescott High School for 19 firefighters who perished battling a fast-moving wildfire in Prescott, Arizona July 2, 2013. [Photo/Agencies]

Spectators in this Old West town of 40,000 placed straw hats over hearts and cried quietly during the tribute to the 19 firefighters who were killed Sunday, then went on to drink, laugh and cheer as heartily as the miners and ranchers who patronized the arena in the 1800s.

Emotional whiplash has become a matter of course here as residents try to move on and enjoy the biggest tourism week of the year, while also mourning the men who were the town's pride.

The famous saloons on Whiskey Row continue to hum, the Fourth of July fireworks show is going on as usual, and attendance is holding steady at the weeklong "World's Oldest Rodeo" event, even as memorials proliferate on Prescott's elm-lined streets and relatives fly in for funerals.

"It's not going to do anyone any good just sitting in the house. I think it's more important to spend time with people than anything else," said financial planner Andrew Secundy, who cut loose at the rodeo Monday night and mourned at a twilight vigil Tuesday.

A mile-high city about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix, Prescott remains a modern-day outpost of the pioneer spirit, a place where rootin' tootin' cowboys still have a foothold. It's that spirit that will guide officials as they navigate the days ahead and figure out how to honor the elite Hotshot firefighters who died in a nearby wind-driven wildfire that is still burning, said Prescott Fire Marshal Don Devendorf.

"The people on the range, on ranches, they did whatever they could do. It wasn't money, but it was love, it was caring, it was sweat," Devendorf said as he walked among thousands of mourners who filled the Prescott High School football stadium for Tuesday's vigil. Nineteen balloons - one for each of the fallen - were released into the air.

"People need a reason to celebrate," he said. "They need to know that life is going to get back to normal."

But the town is still hurting. There's a saying here that if someone dies in Prescott, you either know the person or know someone who did. That rings especially true for the Granite Mountain Hotshot fire crew, who were at the apex of Prescott's thriving firefighting community. At least five of those killed graduated from Prescott High School.

Until Sunday, the quaint town was home to two of the Southwest's 18 highly qualified Hotshot crews. That was a point of pride among residents, who trace their links to local firefighters through dense networks of cousins and in-laws.

"There's a lot of people who grow up and want to be firefighters here," said Prescott native Ryan Philips, who worked as a Hotshot for three years.

Numerous state and federal forestry workers call Prescott home, while firefighters from all over the country flock here for training at the annual Arizona Wildfire Academy at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The town abuts 1.25 million acres of national forest in an area that sees its share of wildland blazes.

A week before the Hotshot men were killed, crews fighting another fire turned the Prescott High baseball field into a tent city.

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