On a sweltering day in late June, lightning set off a wildfire near the town of Yarnell. It wasn't a huge fire, but powerful, shifting winds soon turned it into a deadly inferno for a team of Prescott firefighters. The story of the loss of 19 firefighters was the biggest in Arizona in 2013, but it had lots of competition in a year that produced a scandal over child welfare, a salacious murder trial in Phoenix and more fights over the immigration tactics of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The nation mourned the loss of 19 Arizona wildland firefighters after a wind-fueled, out-of-control blaze trapped them in thick brush while trying to protect a former gold-mining town. Donations for the men's families poured in from across the country. In the meantime, questions swirled as to how it happened and grieving widows made public pleas for each man's family to get full survivors' benefits. A report commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division assigned no blame for the June 30 deaths, while a subsequent worker-safety report said forestry officials overseeing the inferno placed structure protection over firefighter safety. The deaths were the worst firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2011. More than 100 homes were lost in the Yarnell Hill Fire, about 30 miles south of Prescott.
ARIZONA CHILD ABUSE
Arizona's overburdened child welfare system landed in the news in November when it was revealed that more than 6,500 child abuse and neglect reports received by a state telephone hotline were closed without investigation. Department of Economic Security Director Clarence Carter revealed the problems Nov. 21 and Gov. Jan Brewer called for an investigation into how the reports were left uninvestigated. Democrats and the state's largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, have called for Carter's resignation, but Brewer is resisting, saying she is waiting for the results of a state police investigation and a separate probe by a team she appointed to review how the cases were abandoned.
ARIZONA SHERIFF-RACIAL PROFILING
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office was found by a court in late May to have systematically singled out Latinos in its trademark immigration patrols, marking the first finding by a court that the agency racially profiled people. U.S. District Judge Murray Snow ordered the appointment of an independent monitor to ensure that the agency isn't making unconstitutional arrests and imposed a list of restrictions on the sheriff's patrols, such as barring the use of race as a factor in deciding whether to stop a vehicle with a Latino occupant. Arpaio has appealed the racial profiling finding and the ruling that ordered the appointment of a monitor.
The sensational murder case of Jodi Arias became the trial of the year as the proceedings were broadcast live and were a nightly cable television staple. Arias was convicted in May of killing boyfriend Travis Alexander at his suburban Phoenix home, but the jury failed to decide on her sentence. The case continues to languish in the courts as prosecutors prepare for a retrial aimed at securing a death penalty. As taxpayer bills for her defense mount into the millions, no date has yet been set for a new sentencing phase and each hearing has been held behind closed doors without public scrutiny. Arias, meanwhile, remains jailed awaiting her fate.
Gov. Jan Brewer is a staunch opponent of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law and unsuccessfully sued to have it overturned. Brewer dropped a bombshell in January by announcing she would embrace one of the laws key provisions, an expanded Medicaid insurance program for the poor. The announcement set off an epic battle between the governor and Republicans in the Legislature. Brewer cobbled together a handful of GOP supporters and enlisted the backing of all the Democratic lawmakers, but still could not get GOP leaders to move her plan. The state Senate finally passed a budget that included Medicaid expansion in May, after Senate President Andy Biggs nearly was booted from his job because of his unwavering opposition. House Speaker Andy Tobin refused for weeks to bring the Senate budget up for a vote. Brewer finally had enough, and on June 11 called the Legislature into special session to adopt a new version of the budget that included Medicaid expansion, which she signed days later. Opponents tried to block the law by gathering signatures to get it on the ballot but failed. The hospital assessment paying for the expansion's costs is now the subject of a court battle.
GRAND CANYON SHUTDOWN
The Grand Canyon -- one of Arizona's biggest economic drivers -- was out of business this fall after Congress failed to reach a deal on the federal budget. Federal and private employees were furloughed, river rafting trips canceled, hotels and hiking trails closed, and vacations were ruined as thousands of people were turned away from the entrance gates. The town of Tusayan, local businesses
and the state offered to chip in money to reopen the national park. The federal government said "no thanks" at first but eventually took up the offer without any promise of repayment. Officials estimated millions in losses from the shutdown.
Debra Milke was found guilty in 1990 for having two men kill her 4-year-old son, b ut after 24 years on Arizona's death row, an appeals court overturned the conviction and set her free pending a 2015 retrial. The case rested largely on the testimony of former Phoenix police Detective Armando Saldate, who said Milke confessed, but he didn't record it and jurors were left with his word alone that it occurred. Milke denied it. The appeals court has now accused Saldate of numerous instances of lying under oath and violating suspects' rights. The case against Milke was dealt a crushing blow in December when a judge allowed Saldate to assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and not testify at her retrial for fear of being prosecuted himself for civil rights violations. Defense attorneys will now seek to have the case dismissed based on lack of evidence.
Attorney General Tom Horne has spent the past year trying to avoid allegations that he violated campaign finance laws in his 2010 election race. Those allegations are still alive, but two other matters facing the Republican as he prepares for a 2014 re-election bid have faded away. One was a hit-and-run charge he faced after FBI agents tailing the attorney general watched him back into a parked car in March 2012 while on what they thought was a secretive lunchtime rendezvous with his lover. He pleaded no contest to hit and run in May. The state Bar also closed its investigation in that case and one prompted by the campaign finance case, temporarily in the latter. The campaign finance allegations have been harder to avoid. After Horne maneuvered to get them dismissed on a technicality, they were revived by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk in October, and Horne faces a February hearing.
Arizona remained front-and-center in the continuing national debate over immigration in 2013. The states' two senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, were among the bipartisan "gang of eight" senators promoting a long-awaited immigration overhaul. The Senate approved the legislation, but the House has failed to take any action or propose its own version. Some politicians are suggesting the House could do something on immigration reform in 2014. In Arizona, emboldened activists protested state and federal immigration policies with civil disobedience at the border, protest marches and lawsuits.
A seventh-generation high-wire artist who dreamed of crossing the Grand Canyon successfully completed the feat at a nearby gorge. Hundreds of people watched on site, and millions more on live television, as Nik Wallenda walked a quarter-mile across a cable suspended 1,500 feet above the Little Colorado River Gorge on the Navajo Nation . He did so without a safety net or harness. Wallenda stepped slowly and steadily throughout, murmuring prayers along the way. Some tribal members protested, saying the tribe shouldn't promote death-defying acts for the benefit of tourism.