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July 7, 2013

Procession brings home fallen Arizona firefighters

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Just as they were taken one at a time from the scene of their deaths, 19 firefighters killed in a wildfire a week ago will be returned to their home in the Arizona mountains on Sunday.

Each elite Hotshot firefighter will be in his own hearse as the hourslong procession takes the men's bodies from a coroner's office in Phoenix, through the town where they died and on to where they lived in the mountain community of Prescott.

American flags that were draped over the men's bodies in Yarnell have stayed with them since and will be with them until they are buried. After that, the flags will be given to their families.

The hearses will be accompanied by motorcycle escorts and honor guard members.

It's unclear how long the procession will last, but the route is about 125 miles long.

Since their fellow firefighters arrived at the scene where they were killed, the fallen firefighters have not been alone, a tradition among those in the profession in the U.S.

"Since they were discovered, they have never been out of the presence of a brother firefighter," said Paul Bourgeois, a Phoenix-area fire chief who is acting as a spokesman in Prescott for the firefighters' families. "From the time they were taken to the medical examiner in Phoenix, while they're at the medical examiner's office, when they are received in a funeral home — there will always be a brother firefighter on site with them until they are interred.

"That's something people don't realize. We never leave your side," he said of the tradition. "It's a comfort to the survivors, whether they're families or fellow firefighters."

The firefighters were killed a week ago in the Yarnell Hill fire, sparked by lightning on June 28. It was 90 percent contained Saturday, after destroying more than 100 homes in Yarnell and burning about 13 square miles. The town remained evacuated.

The crew of Hotshots was working to build a fire line between the blaze and Yarnell when erratic winds suddenly shifted the fire's direction, causing it to hook around the firefighters and cut off access to a ranch that was to be their safety zone.

The highly trained men were in the prime of their lives, and many left behind wives — some pregnant — and small children.

An investigation into the tragedy has found only that winds took the firefighters by surprise; more thorough findings will come much later.

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