Firefighter's widow finds peace, comfort in 'Be Better' bracelet

Published: Monday, July 8 2013 7:35 a.m. MDT

A wildfire burns homes in Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013. An Arizona fire chief says the wildfire that killed 19 members of his crew near the town was moving fast and fueled by hot, dry conditions. The fire started with a lightning strike on Friday and spread to 2,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski)

David Kadlubowski, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Editor's note: We originally reported that the bands were called "Be Good" bracelets. The Deseret News has since learned the family refers to them as "Be Better" bracelets. This story has been updated to reflect that.

PRESCOTT, ARIZ. — For Juliann Ashcraft, widow of Arizona firefighter Andrew Ashcraft, the longest week of her life came to a merciful end Saturday, when a message from her husband — and, perhaps, from God — presented itself in the form of a charred rubber bracelet.

“It has been a whirlwind of emotions,” the young mother of four said during a telephone interview Saturday night as her brother drove her home from a planning meeting for Tuesday’s public memorial service for her late husband and 18 other firefighters. The 19 men died June 30 when treacherous, shifting winds turned the relatively small wildfire they were fighting near Yarnell, Ariz., into America’s most devastating loss of firefighters since the tragedy of 9/11.

There was tenderness and love in Juliann’s voice as she spoke, but it was also firm and strong and confident despite the fact — or, perhaps, because of — what she had just experienced. During the planning meeting officers returned personal effects to family members of the 19 firefighters. Or, at least, those that were recognizable enough to be salvaged after what the firefighters had been through.

“There weren’t a lot of things that came back intact,” she said. “The damage was pretty catastrophic. Everything was charred and melted — his pocket knife, his compass. They couldn’t even find his watch.”

But there was among Andrew’s personal effects a rubber wristband — formerly white, now yellowed and singed, but still wonderfully recognizable to Juliann.

“About six months ago Andrew was in charge of our family home evening,” she said, referring to a common practice among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to gather weekly as a family to strengthen faith and family bonds through scripture study, games, treats and prayer. “His lesson was aimed at our children (ages 6 and younger) about how we all need to be better so we can be together as a family forever. As part of the lesson he got us all these white rubber wristbands. He said they would remind us to be better, so we called them our ‘Be Better bracelets.’

“The kids and I wore ours for a few days, but then we took them off and only wore them once in a while,” she continued. “But Andrew promised me that he would wear his until it fell off his wrist — because it was so worn out — or until the day he died. To him, it was a symbol of his commitment to me and to our family and that it was forever. So he wore it all the time, and he told me he looked at it a lot. It reminded him of us, and it made him want to be a better man.”

Juliann said she had no expectation that Andrew’s “Be Better bracelet” would survive the fire. “It was just a cheap thing,” she said, “and it was made of rubber — not exactly fire resistant.”

But when she saw it among Andrew’s effects — one of only a handful of items to make it through the blaze intact — she said she was overwhelmed by what she called a “tender mercy.”

“It was a miracle that it survived the heat and flames,” she said. “I just see it as a tender mercy from Heavenly Father. Andrew made me a promise, and he kept it. And God wanted us to know that he kept it.”

“He was a good man,” Juliann said simply, powerfully. “A lot of us claim to be the things that we are only aspiring to be. We go through the motions, but it’s not really inside us. Andrew was just good. He wasn’t perfect — no one is. But he didn’t pretend to be good; he was good.”

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