BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
A distance of 1,700 miles didn’t lessen the impact felt by Kris Masterman about the deaths of 19 elite firefighter squad members in Arizona.
The squad — members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Ariz. — died Sunday while battling a wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz.
Masterman, who now lives in Danville, became a member of the Hotshots when he was 26 and has fought hundreds of fires. Two of his friends — Jesse Steed and Travis Carter — were a part of the squad who died Sunday.
A tribute of American flags and a sign for Steed and Carter is in Masterman’s front yard along East Winter Avenue. In remembering his friends, Masterman hoped it would also make people aware of what firefighters go through “day in and day out.”
“Hotshots hike in miles and miles and miles to a fire where there are no roads,” he said. “They’ll helicopter in. They’ll rappel in. They do all this stuff, they go where nobody else goes.
“There’s places that I’ve seen that probably no man has ever stepped on,” he added.
Hiking into fire scenes regularly means carrying packs weighing upward of 60-70 pounds, he noted. The effort and conditions makes it worthwhile.
“You feel like you’ve done something,” he said. “You feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
With intervals during the summer of two to three weeks at a fire scene and only a couple of days home, Masterman said the squad is a tight-knit group.
“They’re your family,” he said. “They’re got your back. You’ve got to trust them to do their job.”
The Hotshots squad was on the front lines of the Arizona wildfire when its members became trapped in the fire. There are more than 100 20-man Hotshots teams in the United States.
“This is just a tragedy,” he said. “It’s shouldn’t have happened and I wish it didn’t, but it did.”
Masterman and his wife, Corina, planned to head to Arizona during the coming week to attend funeral services for Carter and Steed.
Corina said she thought of the idea for the tribute after seeing many communities with no connection to the Hotshots making efforts to remember the fallen firefighters.
At first, she started to question what Danville was doing.
“But I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, why aren’t we doing anything?’” she said of herself and her husband. “We need to do something just to honor their memory.”
Creating the tribute was therapeutic for Masterman, who found out about his friends’ deaths Sunday night.
Another of his friends heard the distress call and found their bodies.
“It’s was pretty rough,” he said. “It’s been hard for this past week.”
Despite the tragedy, Masterman said his idea of the work the Hotshots hasn’t changed.
“Tell you the truth, I still miss being out there with the Hotshots,” he said. “Whether this happened or not, it’s just in my blood.”