Arizona Hotshots lived the meaning of the word

Wednesday - 7/3/2013, 4:28am EDT

In this June 2013 photo provided by the Prescott Fire Department via the Prescott Daily Courier, Dustin Deford, a member of the Prescott Fire Department Granite Mountain Hotshots, sharpens his chainsaw while working a fire near Prescott, Ariz. DeFord, 24, who grew up in Ekalaka, Mont., died Sunday, June 30, 2013 with 18 other firefighters when they were overtaken by an out-of-control blaze. (AP Photo/Prescott Fire Department via the Prescott Daily Courier)

ALLEN G. BREED
Associated Press

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- They were fathers and expectant fathers. High school football players and former Marines. Smoke-eaters' sons and first-generation firefighters.

What bound the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots together was a "love of hard work and arduous adventure," and a willingness to risk their lives to protect others. And now, 19 families share a bond of grief.

All but one of the Prescott-based crew's 20 members died Sunday when a wind-whipped wildfire overran them on a mountainside northwest of Phoenix. It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years and the deadliest single day for fire crews since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In the firefighting world, "Hotshot" is the name given to those willing to go to the hottest part of a blaze. They are the best of the best, crews filled with adventure-seekers whose hard training ready them for the worst.

"We are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fireline tasks," the group's website says. "Comforts such as beds, showers and hot meals are not always common."

Above all, the crew's members prided themselves on their problem-solving, teamwork and "ability to make decisions in a stressful environment."

"It's a younger man's game," said Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, and the statistics bear him out. Of those who died, 14 were in their 20s; their average age was just 26.

At least three members of the crew were following in their fathers' firefighting footsteps.

Kevin Woyjeck, 21, used to accompany his dad, Capt. Joe Woyjeck, to the Los Angeles County Fire Department, sometimes going on ride-alongs. The firehouse was like a second home to him, said Keith Mora, an inspector with that agency.

"He wanted to become a firefighter like his dad and hopefully work hand-in-hand," Mora said Monday outside a fire station in Seal Beach, Calif., where the Woyjeck family lives. "He was a great kid. Unbelievable sense of humor, work ethic that was not parallel to many kids I've seen at that age. He wanted to work very hard."

Chris MacKenzie, 30, grew up in California's San Jacinto Valley, where father Michael was a former captain with the Moreno Valley Fire Department. An avid snowboarder, MacKenzie joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004, then transferred two years ago to the Prescott Fire Department.

Dustin DeFord, 24, was a Baptist preacher's son, but it was firefighting that captured his imagination.

At 18, he volunteered for the Carter County Rural Fire Department like his father did in his hometown of Ekalaka, Mont., according to The Billings Gazette. Almost everyone knew DeFord in the small town where he grew up and had worked a variety of jobs, the local sheriff said.

He liked to cliff jump and run "Spartan Race" obstacle courses, and he passed the physical test for the Granite Mountain crew in January 2012.

"He was one of the good ones who ever walked on this earth," Carter County Sheriff Neil Kittelmann told the newspaper.

Many of those killed were graduates of Prescott High. One of them was 28-year-old Clayton Whitted, who as a firefighter would work out on the same campus where he played football for the Prescott Badgers from 2000 to 2004.

The school's football coach, Lou Beneitone, said Whitted was the type of athlete who "worked his fanny off."

"He wasn't a big kid, and many times in the game, he was overpowered by big men, and he still got after it," the coach said. "He knew, 'This man in front of me is a lot bigger and stronger than me,' but he'd try it, and he'd smile trying it."

As a condition of hire, each of these Hotshot members was required to pass the U.S. Forest Service's "Arduous Work Capacity Test" -- which entails completing a 3-mile hike carrying a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes. The group also set for its members a fitness goal of a 1.5-mile run in 10 minutes, 35 seconds; 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds; 25 pushups in 60 seconds; and seven pull-ups, according to the crew's website.

"The nature of our work requires us to endure physical hardships beyond most people's experiences," the website said. "Environmental extremes, long hours, bad food, and steep, rugged terrain, demand that we train early and often by running and hiking, doing core exercises, yoga, and weight training."

The group started in 2002 as a fuels mitigation crew -- clearing brush to starve a fire. Within six years, they had made their transition into the "elite" Hotshot community.