FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Until tragedy hit two years ago, the central Arizona city of Prescott had a unique status as the only municipality with an elite wildfire Hotshot crew.
But the Granite Mountain Hotshots never re-formed after 19 of them died defending the nearby community of Yarnell, and the city will contract the fire-prevention work they did in the offseason. The deaths also exacerbated the city's retirement system woes, with the city asking residents this summer to raise the sales tax to cover an already underfunded system.
As Prescott pauses Tuesday to remember the two-year anniversary of the tragedy, the changes reflect the lingering financial toll of the fire on a city that had deep ties to the Granite Mountain Hotshots and relied heavily on their work in removing trees, shrub and brush around town to reduce the risk of wildfires.
"This has required us to change our business model somewhat," said Prescott Fire Chief Dennis Light.
Prescott's terrain has made it susceptible to wildfires as it lies in a basin that is bordered by the Prescott National Forest and other state and federal land. When the Granite Mountain Hotshots weren't battling wildfires in Arizona and around the country, they were a familiar sight around Prescott. Residents could leave overgrown vegetation and other debris on their curbs, and the crew within the fire department's Wildland Division would chip it for free.
Those efforts have been eliminated, raising questions about how susceptible the city is to wildfire. Light said employing seasonal crews would be an "insurmountable" cost for the city. The Wildland Division was cut in the latest budget.
Its former chief, Darrell Willis, retired earlier this year, saying he was troubled by the direction the city was going and that he considered wildfire the biggest threat to Prescott, particularly after a year of good moisture.
"I think they're gambling," he said.
Bob Betts, chairman of the Prescott Area Wildland urban Interface Commission, said he's concerned about the city's plan to contract fuel mitigation when city crews previously cleared about 600 acres a year and especially with the decision not to chip debris for residents in the community.
"Was it a luxury? No, it's a necessity out there where we live," he said. "This is wildfire country, and you have to continuously mitigate fuels out there."
Light has asked residents to honor the legacy of the Granite Mountain Hotshots by clearing their own vegetation from around their homes and thinning growth. Still on the city's payroll are an administrator and two fuels reduction technicians who will do property assessments but not residential chipping work.
Light said he knows the loss of the work that the Hotshots were built on is felt more deeply because of the Hotshots' deaths.
The pension benefits paid to their families factors in to the city's unfunded $70 million to a small degree. A question on the August ballot will ask residents to approve a .55 percent city sales tax, or about $126, per household per year to avoid cuts to other city services.
Tuesday's anniversary of the Hotshots' deaths will be scaled back from last year's commemoration. Both Prescott and Yarnell plan brief ceremonies with moments of silence and bell tolls. Some of the men's families are gathering for a private ceremony at the cemetery where some of the Hotshots are buried.
Hours earlier, the state Land Department will auction off the site where they died. The state Parks Department is hoping to be the winning bidder for a planned memorial.
"My prayer is that we don't forget the noble work they did and we stand strong in pushing that forward, which is mitigation, education and quick response to wildfires," said Willis, who is part of the group designing the memorial.