19 promises: A year after Arizona tragedy, firefighter's widow filled with gratitude
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
YARNELL, Ariz. — There's one room in Juliann Ashcraft's home that serves a solemn, almost sacred purpose.
Dozens of framed pictures of a mustached man with his family and comrades cover the room's walls. An immaculate glass curio cabinet proudly displays a firefighter's helmet, a weathered pair of boots, a charred silicone bracelet and several folded American flags — all carefully arranged.
Somewhat apart, hanging on a wall near the corner, there is a simple framed list, a memento different from the others, bearing the signature of her husband, Andrew Ashcraft.
He was one of 19 firefighters who died in a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona. Now, a year later and still struggling to understand, Juliann Ashcraft looks at the photos and memories in the cabinet like they were pieces of an unsolved puzzle.
"It's been a year, and I still can't wrap my head around it," she said.
The 29-year-old mother of four said she hopes to one day make sense of what happened. For now, the thought of losing in one instant her husband, whom she knew since she was eight years old, and 18 other elite firefighters remains a senseless calamity.
"I used to dream of growing old with Andrew, and now I feel guilty for growing old at all," she said.
But grief and uncertainty are obstacles Ashcraft and her children, ages 2-7, are learning to live with a little more each day.
"I still feel broken in a lot of aspects in my life, but I think we're doing OK," she said. "As a family, we're learning what normal is like now and we're taking one day at a time."
'Dad's not coming home'
It was about 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 30, 2013 when Juliann Ashcraft started getting alarming phone messages from friends. Her husband was in his third season with the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Prescott, Arizona. He was on a fire in Yarnell, a small town about 30 miles to the south, but there hadn't been a cause for concern.
The messages, however, kept on coming: "Have you heard from Andrew? Is Andrew OK? When was the last time you heard from him?"
Juliann turned on the news and listened helplessly with her children to reports that all but one or two of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were gone.
Eventually, one of the children asked the unthinkable: "Mom, is Daddy dead?"
She remembers her own conflicted reaction: "I think because I couldn't really believe it, I couldn't cry. I couldn't do anything. And part of me ... was still trying to hold out some sort of hope until I'd heard. The way that I felt inside was a pit in my stomach that I can never explain. ... It was just this complete unknown territory."
For the next three hours, Juliann waited in agonizing incertitude until a county sheriff and a wildfire official came to her home.
"When they walked up, obviously, I knew," she said. "They didn't even say anything, and I just kind of collapsed."
The two officials recounted what was known so far.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were assigned that day to the Yarnell Hill Fire. Intense shifting winds caused the fire to change directions and spread rapidly. Somehow, Andrew Ashcraft and the other firefighters became trapped by the flame front and had to deploy their fire shelters — a cocoon-like foil blanket used to block radiant heat.
Crew member Brendan McDonough, who was on another part of the fire, was Granite Mountain's sole survivor.
Juliann said it was "a blessing" to know that someone had survived, though her own situation was now inescapably real.
"My biggest concern, obviously, was my kids," she said. "I kept looking at them in those moments and thinking, 'How am I going to tell them that their dad's not coming home?'"
The officials said the bodies — now draped in American flags — would stay at the deployment site that night while the incident remained under investigation.
"I was really concerned with the fact that ... he had to stay out there overnight," Ashcraft said. "I still as a wife wanted to take care of his needs, and it's hard to shift and realize he doesn't have physical needs anymore."
Earlier that year, remorse for having to be absent from home so often was bearing down heavily on Andrew Ashcraft, and he felt compelled to renew his commitment to his family. While on a picnic with his wife, he wrote out a list of promises to her.
A few of them offered practical benefits:
"I promise to always take out the trash."
"I promise to always take care of you."
"I promise to be mean if it means helping you and our family."
Most of the promises had deeper significance:
"I promise to be the father our family deserves."
"I promise to protect you with my life."
"I promise to love you for time and all eternity."
On May 2, less than two months before fire would claim his life, Andrew Ashcraft signed the list and hung it on the living room wall.
"At the moment, they sounded great," Juliann Ashcraft said. "But to have, now, a signed contract from my husband on my wall that says, 'I'll love you for eternity' is really a miracle in itself."
The list contains 19 promises in all, "Which is kind of interesting," she said.
Months before he signed the list, Andrew Ashcraft gathered his wife and children, devout Mormons, together for a Family Home Evening lesson. The father presented his family with silicone bracelets stamped with the words "Be Better." The bracelets would encourage each family member to uphold their standards as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"He said they would remind us to be better at home, better in the community, better friends, better brothers and sisters," Juliann Ashcraft recalled, echoing still more of the promises on the list.
"He wore his, and he said, 'I will die with it on, or it will fall off of me.'"
Andrew Ashcraft was determined "to be someone you're proud of, ... to never ease up and coast" and to make "decisions that will make our family strong." Each commitment made the list.
Few items were recovered from the deployment site where Ashcraft and his fellow hotshots died. The fire at the site burned in excess of 2,000 degrees, splitting boulders and incinerating equipment, according to an investigation report. Ashcraft's silicone bracelet, however, survived.
Juliann calls it "a real tender mercy."
"I think God knew that I needed to have a small reminder that Andrew loved our family and he was standing for something out there," she said.
It seemed her husband still intended "to rise above my environment," as well as "to show my love for you" and "how thankful I am for you." More commitments.
Many lives were disrupted in the fire's wake. More than 100 structures were destroyed, including Russ and Leah Reason's home. With just enough time to get the car keys and drive away, everything in their home of 28 years was lost.
"I still haven't really gotten over it," Russ Reason said.
The couple has since moved into another house in the area, but they said they still feel far from home.
"I still feel uprooted," Leah Reason said. "We have resettled in another place, but I still haven't gotten to where it's home yet. I'm still kind of in limbo."
With the deaths of the firefighters and the property loss, the Yarnell Hill Fire coalesced into "a tragic loss," Russ Reason said.
"I still have deep feelings about the 19 boys that lost their lives and I still think that's probably the worst part of it," Leah Reason said. "I just thank my Heavenly Father that they were willing to sacrifice."
Sacrifice and putting others' needs first was a commitment Andrew Ashcraft had made personally to his wife, and he and his crew were used to fulfilling on the fire line in places like Yarnell.
The couple says they've relied wholly on their faith in God over the past year as they and other families have gradually rebuilt their lives.
"I can't just sit and wallow in it. That's just not me," Leah Reason said. "There is still life and it's still good and worthwhile."
"We have to look forward, so we're doing the best we can and enjoying it," Russ Reason said.
The Yarnell Hill Fire seemed to burn in both Yarnell and Prescott long after it was contained as the two communities mourned the devastation. In time, the posters, the T-shirts and the bumper stickers became too common a sight for Juliann Ashcraft and her children.
"As much as it's a beautiful thing to see people remembering them, for us, it's a reminder of the tragedy," she said. "It's everyone's name, and it's Yarnell Hill, and it's a reminder of the day that Andrew died."
Ashcraft and her children have since left Prescott and moved to Queen Creek, Arizona. After Andrew Ashcraft's promise "to hold you," his family has hardly let go.
"There's no less of a reminder of Andrew because we think about him every second of every day," she said. "But it's his life (we think about) and not his death, and that has been very healing for our family."
It's been a year of firsts for the Ashcrafts — a first birthday, a first Christmas, a first Father's Day — all in smaller company. But every day begins and ends with thoughts of eternity, Juliann said.
"Every night when my kids pray, they ask God to give Andrew their hug and kiss for them," she said. "It is an eternal perspective that we have. I would be a fool to say that because I know we'll be together forever that this life is easier."
Juliann is planning to attend law school in preparation for a career that will provide for her family and instill in her children an appreciation for education. The children continue to enjoy playing sports, and the wife and mother says she still feels the man who promised to be their "best friend" and "biggest fan" cheering them on.
"I'm not a single parent," she said. "My children have a dad. They have a wonderful, amazing dad."
The family is participating in a gathering of close friends and family as well as commemorative events this week in Prescott. As the anniversary of an unforgettable loss arrives, Juliann continues to reflect on all that she's gained.
"I think as the year comes to a close, I'm really able to count my blessings and realize how much people have done for our family," she said. "I'm overwhelmed with gratitude. I'm humbled. I'm so appreciative."
And because Andrew Ashcraft's promise "to take you away and be with you" is likely decades away from completion, Juliann is making the most of the time she has to fulfill promises of her own, which she made from a podium at her husband's funeral:
"Your ultimate sacrifice purified me, and so many lessons I've learned. So these promises to you I am making, promises so graciously earned.
"I promise to teach them of their daddy, the greatest man I've ever known. To teach them the values you showed me, and to never leave them alone.
"I promise to love and protect them, tuck them in at night warm and snug. Begin and end each day the same, from Daddy a big kiss and a hug. ...
"I promise that I will be faithful, to our God with whom you now reside, to do all within my power, to ensure my place by your side."
Contributing: Alex Cabrero
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