In a memorial ceremony held at the RiverBend Youth Correctional Facility Tuesday, members of the RiverBend firefighting crew remember and honor the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, each represented by a purple ribbon, who died trying to contain a wildfire in Arizona. (Chris Baxter/The Observer).
Young men at the Oregon Youth Authority’s RiverBend facility got a sobering taste of reality Sunday night when they learned that 19 firefighters were killed in Arizona.
To honor that reality and the lives lost, the RiverBend fire crew hosted a memorial service for the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot crew members Tuesday morning.
One by one, the young men taped 19 purple ribbons bearing the initials of those lost in the Yarnell Hill Fire to the flagpole at RiverBend’s entrance.
“It struck home for us because it’s the career we’re going to follow when we get out,” said Michael Gilligan. “We know the risk.”
Gilligan, Shalon Freeman and John Weaver helped organize the memorial service with fire instructors Brett Dunten and Giles Darrow.
“It’s not that we’re afraid now,” Weaver said. Rather, the men said, it’s a reminder to stay alert.
RiverBend has 17 certified firefighters and 13 more currently in class.
“They’ll be ready in two weeks,” Dunten said. Last year, the crew helped fight three local fires. Dunten said the crew has a relationship with the Oregon Department of Forestry and is working with the Forest Service as well.
Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, Ariz., were killed when a windblown wildfire overcame them north of Phoenix. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11.
The facility’s mental health provider, Shaye Dickenson, noted that the men at RiverBend are around the same age as many of the men who died in Arizona. RiverBend keeps inmates up to age 25.
“We forget how dangerous firefighting is,” she said.
RiverBend Supervisor Brian Blisard said staff videotaped the memorial service and plan to send it to Prescott, along with a card and letters. Darrow had made a call to Prescott to let them know a package would be coming.
“When he called her, I believe it was the administrative assistant, she had to take a minute to collect herself because a so-called set of inmates, from Oregon nonetheless, had the heart, the care, the consideration and the camaraderie to do something like this,” Blisard said. “She was really choked up.”
One inmate who was paroled at 8 a.m. Tuesday was disappointed to miss the memorial event, but wrote a letter to be mailed with the others. In it, he refers to the fallen Hotshot crew members as “brothers in firefighting,” Blisard said.
“I thought that was pretty amazing,” he said.
The supervisor said the inmates hosting a memorial service shows they are on the right track, whether they committed a petty crime or something more serious to end up at RiverBend.
“To see them come here and do the fire academy and finish and see this tragedy and still want to (fight fire) … it’s impressive,” Blisard said. “I’m at a loss of words. I’m proud of the men they’ve become.”