Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

Widow of fallen Arizona firefighter recalls his last day

PRESCOTT, Ariz.

Before dawn, Juliann Ashcraft kissed her husband goodbye as he left their home to join his wildfire crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Andrew Ashcraft promised to text her during the day, as always.

Andrew's first message came about 5:45 a.m. Sunday, about half an hour after he had left home. Andrew, 29, tall and strapping, was heading to the fire in Yarnell.

As the crew went into the hills, Juliann took their four children to a nearby pool.

Another text from Andrew at 6:24 a.m.: "I think I'm going to be out here a while on this one."

And later: "It's getting really wild out here — Peeples Valley is trying to burn down."

Juliann, 28, was not fazed. Her husband had fought big fires before, including one a week earlier. She sent him pictures of the kids swimming.

"I'd love to be in a swimming pool right now," he replied.

At 2:30 p.m., he sent a photo of his crew making camp for lunch with smoke from the fire line rising in the background. He said it was 105 degrees.

It would be the last image she would see of them alive.

"It looks like the inferno," she replied. Their 4-year-old daughter, Shiloh, sent a message to her father that it was raining; she wished he could see.

"We could really use a little rain down here," he replied at 3:19 p.m.

Then nothing.

At 4:08, she texted, "Are you sleeping down there?"

No reply.

She was used to that. Andrew worked 21 days at a time, and was often out of contact, although he made an effort, climbing hills to get reception just to text her an "I love you."

About 7:30 p.m. her phone started buzzing with friends and family. Was Andrew okay?

About 9, two sheriff's deputies arrived at the couple's suburban duplex with the news. Nineteen firefighters had died, including Andrew.

Juliann spent the next day assembling dental records and information on marks that could be used to identify her husband, including tattoos: their children's names on his collarbone, their wedding date on his ring finger.

She stopped by the local middle school to see a grief counselor. It was the same school where she and Andrew had met as students before attending Prescott High School and starting to date. She also saw the other fire widows, many of them young mothers like herself. They knew how she felt, she said, and that was a comfort.

Her husband had joined the Hotshot team three years ago, training for six months to get fit enough, and became rookie of the year. He rose to become "lead saw," head of a team under Capt. Eric Marsh and superintendent Jesse Steed, driving ahead of the Hotshots' buggy into the woods with "saw boss" Travis Carter in a pickup truck.

Andrew often stored his belongings in the truck, which is why, Juliann thinks, when a fire official returned his wallet to her Monday, it had not been charred, not even the Safeway sandwich coupon from his last lunch.

There are still so many unknowns: how her husband died, why he couldn't outrun the fire or shelter from the blaze.

Juliann is not sure how badly he was burned, and doesn't think she wants to find out.

"My husband had the most beautiful blue eyes and smile — that's what I want to remember," she said.

Like Juliann, Andrew was a devout Mormon and friends nicknamed him "Choice." When the strait-laced young man was teased, he would chalk it up to "my personal choice."

When he came home for a few days off during fire season, she said, he still pitched in washing dishes and tucking the kids into bed.

The Ashcraft home was full of family and friends Tuesday, who helped care for the couple's children. Juliann had worked as a paralegal, but left her job two months ago to stay home with the kids: Ryder, 6; Shiloh, 4; Tate, 2; and Choice, 16 months, named after his father.

"Now I don't know what I'm going to do," she said. "My focus is on being mother and father. I miss him so much, it's hard to get my head off the pillow. But when you have four kids, you don't get a day off."

 
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