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Austin Ashlock, Grand Forks Herald, Published July 04 2013

Crookston native remembers colleagues lost in Arizona wildfire

Just hours after wrapping up 28 years at the Prescott Fire Department in Prescott, Ariz., former fire captain Jeff Knotek received a panicked phone call from a former employee.

“He was absolutely frantic and what he was saying didn’t make sense,” Knotek said. “It was just too much to process. And then he just hung up.”

All it took was the tone of the dispatch supervisor’s voice during a return call for the retired Knotek, a 1978 graduate of Crookston High School, to sort out what he feared he already knew.

Nineteen members of the PFD’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team of wildfire firefighters and his co-workers, were killed while battling the rapidly spreading Yarnell, Ariz., wildfire.

“That was 20 percent of our workforce just gone,” Knotek said. “And it happened so fast, there was nothing being done that they did wrong.”

According to reports from incident managers on the scene, the squad of hotshots was fighting fires at Yarnell Hill and was returning to their safe zone after lookout Brendan McDonough warned them of the blaze’s change of direction.

The 40 mph winds whipped the blaze around, blocking their escape route and boxing in the 19 firefighters, said Knotek. The team then set up their shelters for protection, but by then it was too late and the fires overcame them.

Knotek had worked with senior hotshots since the team’s inception in 2003, and said the work they did everyday was unprecedented.

“It’s a shame that it takes something like this to get the notice they have earned,” Knotek said. “These were great guys, average guys. They were all very giving people doing things out of the goodness of their hearts. They all loved to joke around, but when it was time to get to work they got their game faces on and went out there.”

Consoling families

Whether they were senior hotshots, grandsons of old employees or new acquaintances like William Warneke, Knotek said he had connections to all 19 members.

However, it is his connection to Warneke that continues to strengthen, even after his untimely death.

For the past three days Knotek has been assisting Warneke’s family, helping make arrangements, tying up loose ends and doing anything the family might need during a time of grieving.

“Initially there was a lot of shock and then the blame game,” Knotek said. “But once they realized there was nothing different the guys could have done to prevent this, that’s when the grieving begins.”

Knotek had only met Warneke earlier this year at the department’s seasonal sendoff for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but Knotek said after spending the past days with his family, he feels as if he knew Warneke well.

Knotek said helping these families gain closure is the only thing he can do to help.

“It’s a lot easier for me to help these families instead of looking from the outside inwards,” Knotek said. “I feel like I need to be doing something, anything that might make this process easier, for everyone.”

All 19 bodies of the fallen crew will be arriving in Prescott together for a memorial, something Knotek takes comfort in.

“Families will know they went out as a crew and came back as a crew,” Knotek said. “It’s going to be hard for them, but they will finally have their loved one with them.”

Years of service

Knotek, a UND graduate, has a long resume in public safety and health. In addition to his 28 years at PFD, Knotek spent 17 years as a part-time flight paramedic for a medical helicopter company out of Phoenix.

Even after retiring, he plans on working full time as a paramedic nurse for a cardiac rehabilitation center.

“I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of neat things in public health,” Knotek said. “This is just what I love do to.”

While looking back at his career in public health and as a firefighter, he can’t help but think of the 19 lives that shared a similar passion.

“I was never a wildfire guy, I only did structural firefighting, and I always told those guys they do a lot more dangerous of a job than I do,” Knotek said. “And they would say the same thing to me, but it really takes a bigger person to do what they did.”

Following Sunday’s tragedy the Granite Mountain Hotshots have only one surviving member, but Knotek said that shouldn’t stop the team from continuing its service.

“The best thing we can do to honor these guys is not to let this team disappear,” Knotek said. “It would be a shame to let the thing these 19 guys lived and died for just fade away. It shouldn’t happen.”

Call Ashlock at (701) 780-1137; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1137; or send email to aashlock@gfherald.com.