YARNELL, Ariz. — The fire that swept through Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday claimed the life of Andrew Ashcraft of Prescott, Ariz., a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and one of 19 firefighters who died fighting the blaze.
Ashcraft was part of the 20-member "Granite Mountain Hotshot" crew, an elite group of firefighters who were tasked with digging the fire line and cutting brush to make a fuel break for the Yarnell Hill Fire, which by Monday afternoon had consumed more than 8,300 acres in an area about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. Hot, gusty winds blew the fire right into the Hotshot crew, which deployed fire shelters intended to protect them from the flames, according to state forestry officials. Unfortunately, the fire overwhelmed the protective technology, and 19 members of the 20-member crew were killed.
Ashcraft was excited and honored to be a member of the Hotshot crew, according to Elise Smith of Prescott, Ariz. When he was her family's home teacher — an assignment of personal and family stewardship within the LDS Church organization — he was "excited, telling us about what he was going to be doing."
“He just had a really sweet spirit about him," Smith said. "We’ve been mourning ever since we heard (of his death) last night.”
Russ Reason, president of the LDS Church's Kirkland Branch in Yarnell, a town of about 700, said 40 church members were safely evacuated out of the way of the fire. Although it is difficult to be sure at this point, since families have not been allowed to return to their homes, Reason believes as many as 11 homes of LDS members have been lost, including his own.
Even so, he said, "the tragic thing is the loss of the firefighters."
"Homes can be replaced," Reason said. "But 19 firefighters lost their lives. That's the tragic thing."
Ashcraft leaves behind his wife, Juliann, and their four children. Funeral services for the firefighters are pending.
Steven Campbell, president of the Prescott Arizona Stake, said help for church members and others in the community will be provided when a better assessment of the damage can be made. Some members of the Kirkland Branch who have homes in the area that were not damaged have offered temporary residence to displaced members. Church members in Prescott, which is about an hour and a half north of Yarnell, have also offered their homes for members to stay in.
“I think we’re going to be able to provide housing for everyone who needs it," Campbell said. "And as we go forward, we'll be able to provide clothing and food and other things people may need. We're here to help our members and others in the community the best that we can."
Scott Taylor, president of the Arizona Phoenix Mission of the LDS Church, said all missionaries in the area are safe and ready to provide service as needed once the fire danger has passed.
Contributing: Deseret News religion writer Joseph Walker contributed to this story.