July 4 in Prescott: Balance of grief, patriotism

Updated: 2013-07-04 07:51


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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 emerging as a 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."

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