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Meredith Holt, Published July 07 2013

Concordia professor witnesses Arizona firefighters’ processional

PEEPLES VALLEY, Ariz. – From the side of the road, Scott Olsen watched as white hearse after white hearse drove by. All 19 of them.

“It was tremendously moving and humbling at the same time,” he said.

The Concordia College professor drove the 1,600 miles from Moorhead to witness Sunday’s processional for the firefighters who lost their lives last week in the Yarnell Hill fire.

“When the accident occurred, there was no way I could not come,” he said.

Olsen, who teaches English, first became interested in the wildfire community while he was working on his book “Hard Air,” about extreme types of flying.

He’d just shipped his book about wildland firefighters a couple days before the tragedy. He said his experience in Arizona will become a part of it.

The fatal fire, which was sparked by lightning on June 28, was 90 percent contained on Sunday, but the town remained evacuated.

The crew was building a fire line between the blaze and Yarnell when erratic winds suddenly shifted the wildfire’s direction, causing it to hook around them and cut off access to a ranch that was supposed to be their safety zone.

On Sunday, Olsen joined thousands of others amid American flags strung between the trees as “easily 100” motorcycle police lead the processional from Phoenix to Prescott. Fire engines and fire crews followed.

“The whole fire community turned out,” he said.

In Peeples Valley, on the north side of the accident site, temperatures pushed into the 100s and wind occasionally dusted up, but that didn’t stop onlookers from paying their respects.

“There’s a reason why we have a kind of romantic relationship with firefighters,” Olsen said. “It’s high-risk, high-action, high-speed, and it is mortal. They are saving our lives with the work that they do, and oftentimes – far too often – they lose theirs.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590