PRESCOTT, AZ - The notoriously rambunctious annual rodeo contest in Prescott added a solemn new ritual this week: a cowboy leading a riderless horse around the outdoor arena, a fire helmet sitting on its saddle, fire boots resting in the stirrups.
Spectators in this Old West town of 40,000 placed straw hats over hearts and cried quietly during the tribute to the 19 firefighters who were killed over the weekend, then went on to drink, laugh and cheer as heartily as the miners and ranchers who patronized the arena in the 1800s.
Emotional whiplash has become a matter of course here as residents try to move on and enjoy the biggest tourism week of the year, while also mourning the men who were the town's pride.
The famous saloons on Whiskey Row continue to hum, the Fourth of July fireworks show is going on as usual, and attendance is holding steady at the weeklong "World's Oldest Rodeo" event, even as memorials proliferate on Prescott's elm-lined streets and relatives fly in for funerals.
"It's not going to do anyone any good just sitting in the house. I think it's more important to spend time with people than anything else," said financial planner Andrew Secundy, who cut loose at the rodeo on Monday night and mourned at a twilight vigil on Tuesday.
A mile-high city about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix, Prescott remains a modern-day outpost of the pioneer spirit, a place where rootin' tootin' cowboys still have a foothold. It's that spirit that will guide officials as they navigate the days ahead and figure out how to honor the elite Hotshot firefighters who died Sunday in a nearby wind-driven wildfire that is still burning, said Prescott Fire Marshal Don Devendorf.
"The people on the range, on ranches, they did whatever they could do. It wasn't money, but it was love, it was caring, it was sweat," Devendorf said as he walked among thousands of mourners who filled the Prescott High School football stadium for Tuesday's vigil. Nineteen balloons -- one for each of the fallen -- were released into the air.
"People need a reason to celebrate," he said. "They need to know that life is going to get back to normal."
But the town is still hurting. There's a saying here that if someone dies in Prescott, you either know the person or know someone who did. That rings especially true for the Granite Mountain Hotshot fire crew, who were at the apex of Prescott's thriving firefighting community. At least five of those killed graduated from Prescott High School.
Until Sunday, the quaint town was home to two of Arizona's 18 highly qualified Hotshot crews. That was a point of pride among residents, who trace their links to local firefighters through dense networks of cousins and in-laws.
"There's a lot of people who grow up and want to be firefighters here," said Prescott native Ryan Philips, who worked as a Hotshot for three years.
Numerous state and federal forestry workers call Prescott home, while firefighters from all over the country flock here for training at the annual Arizona Wildfire Academy at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The town abuts 1.25 million acres of national forest in an area that sees its share of wildland blazes.
A week before the Hotshot men were killed, crews fighting another fire turned the Prescott High baseball field into a tent city.
Bursting with Americana, Prescott is a deeply patriotic, religious town where even teenage boys sing "Amazing Grace" in their full voices.
Tourism blossoms in this one-time territorial capital of Arizona during the summer, when suffocating city-slickers flee Phoenix and Tucson for Prescott's relatively verdant embrace. Retirees are also drawn by the milder weather and old-time atmosphere. Relics of the Old West decorate the windows of antique shops and galleries. The picturesque courthouse plaza is lined with Arizona state flags, all at half-staff now.
Friends have been getting together for impromptu memorials at the half-dozen bars along Whiskey Row, where outlaws Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday once got liquored up, according to local legend. A 10-minute walk away, a steady stream of mourners has covered the fence around the Hotshots' headquarters with notes, photos, drawings and flags. Many of the men's trucks are still parked there.
This week, the town is also filled with evacuees from Yarnell, 32 miles southwest of Prescott, where the fire that claimed so many lives also destroyed as many as 200 homes. Their drawn faces mix with those of the bereaved at town meetings and daily memorials, where officials have begun protecting them with a perimeter of caution tape and security guards.
For better or worse, the tragedy happened at the start of the biggest week of the year for Prescott and its tourism industry. The 126th annual World's Oldest Rodeo, which always coincides with the Fourth of July holiday, runs through Sunday. The event dates to territorial times, when Arizona was an emerging copper and cattle producer.
On Tuesday, the crowd
drank Coors, ate funnel cake and cheered when the cowboys stayed on the bulls, and when they fell off. The merriment stood in stark contrast to the opening tribute, during which rodeo stars lined the arena fence and the audience looked on in silence.
"You gotta keep going, but it's in the back of everyone's mind," said local Paulette Millspaugh, who brought her daughter to the show. "If you don't support what goes on in your small town, it disappears."
A carnival, parade, fireworks display and dance that draw thousands here each year will go on, but with sober tributes to the firefighters folded in. Emergency crews from around Arizona will attend Thursday's festivities and fireworks display at Pioneer Park, and the fallen men will be recognized in a speech, Special Events Manager Becky Karcie said.
Fire authorities said they are using extreme caution with their July Fourth pyrotechnics. The Hotshots died in a fire sparked by lightning.
Some of those closest to the firefighters are finding a silver lining in the crush of patriotism and tradition following so closely after the tragedy.
Phillips, the former Hotshot, had planned to attend the rodeo and Independence Day dance with four firefighters he knew from high school.
All died in the Yarnell Hill fire.
Though part of him feels like staying home, Phillips said he's determined to "go out and have some fun, the right way."
"I'm going to go out and celebrate for them," he said with a sad smile. "That's what every one of them would want."