The smell of smoke can still make her panic. But not helping isn’t an option

One of the women who lost a husband in the Yarnell Hill Fire still feels the pull of a wildfire and the families risking their lives.

Karina Bland, The Republic | azcentral.com

The unfamiliar truck pulled up to the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District station, where crews were stopping to pick up supplies on their way to the Sawmill Fire.

Roxanne Preston, widow of fallen firefighter Billy Warneke, with daughter Billie Grace, delivered fruit to firefighters working the Sawmill Fire in April. (Photo: Roxanne Preston)

The fire had stretched out over more than 40,000 acres. A crew of 600 firefighters and related personnel had been assigned to it. It was 20 percent contained and a wind had kicked up.

A couple of firefighters approached the truck, curious how a civilian vehicle had gotten past the roadblocks.

Roxanne Warneke, riding shotgun, rolled down her window.

It had been almost four years since her husband, wildland firefighter Billy Warneke, was killed by a raging blaze in Yarnell. It was the deadliest wildfire ever in Arizona; 19 men on the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew out of Prescott were killed.

The smell of smoke could still make Roxanne panic.

Yet here she was. She took in a breath and slowly let it out.

The aftermath, the questions

Roxanne had married Billy in 2008, but they had known each other since high school. In June 2013, when the fire swept through Yarnell, Roxanne was pregnant with their first child, a daughter, born six months after Billy died. She was named Billie Grace, for her father.

Roxanne buried Billy in the veterans sections of a cemetery in Marana, with full military honors, not far from where they lived. Billy had served four years in the Marine Corps, including a tour in Iraq.

She never took her eyes off his casket until it was lowered into the ground.

In the end, the house Billy had dreamed of, the one he promised Roxanne, was built by firefighters, friends and neighbors, and complete strangers who donated money, time, labor and supplies.

Billie Grace was 10 months old when they moved in, just the two of them, with the sorrow of their loss.

Roxanne would take her daughter to Billy’s grave with flowers and his dog. She would whisper stories to Billie Grace about her daddy long before she could possibly understand.

For a long time, Roxanne didn’t understand either, how a highly qualified crew, well-trained and disciplined by all accounts, with a lookout and regular protocols, could have found itself trapped in a canyon with no way out.

In the months after the fire, there would be an investigation. And then another, and another. None of them answered all of her questions.

Always part of the family

At the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District station, Roxanne got out of the truck and introduced herself to the firefighters.

She is Roxanne Preston now, having married a man named Harry Preston last summer. Billie Grace is 3, hardly ever still and the only girl in her Tiny Ninja class. She has a new baby brother, Owen.

They live in that same house, built by her community, an American flag still flying out front, a play fort in the backyard now. They are happy.

But being the wife of a firefighter is like becoming part of a family. That doesn’t change, no matter what happens.

So Roxanne still follows the progress of fires online, like she used to when Billy was on the job. At one point, Roxanne noticed that the Sawmill Fire had doubled in size overnight. “I saw that it kept growing,” Roxanne said.

Harry is an ex-Marine with friends who are firefighters, so he, too, was tracking the fire. It was upgraded from a Type 2 fire to Type 1, the most complex.

Roxanne recognized the hotshot crews called into help, including Blue Ridge from Happy Jack. Blue Ridge had helped battle the blaze that killed Billy and the hotshot crew. It was someone from Blue Ridge who had picked up the crew’s lookout, the only survivor.

She felt like she wanted to do something to help.

In 2015, Roxanne had joined Juliann Ashcraft, whose husband, Andrew, also was killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire, and Andrew’s mother, Deborah Pfingston, to form the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute, a non-profit advocacy group.

Billie Grace is 3 years old now and baby Owen’s big sister. (Photo: Roxanne Preston)

They focus on safety for wildland firefighters, lobbying for policy changes and independent investigations. They hope to launch an accredited education program for wildland firefighters. They pay to replace or update equipment. They reach out to firefighters and families who need support.

Last year, Deborah, who lives in Prescott, delivered fresh fruit and beef jerky to crews working on the Tenderfoot Fire in Yarnell.

Juliann met with families of two Beartown firefighters from Michigan who were killed and another half dozen who were injured in an accident on their way to the Box Canyon wildfire in Utah last summer.

‘We need to do something’

As she kept watch on the Sawmill Fire, Roxanne sent a Facebook message to Deborah. “I feel like we need to do something for these guys,” she said.

Roxanne remembered how Billy and the other firefighters tired of MREs and protein bars. So on a Wednesday,she and Harry went to Costco to buy fresh fruit.

Harry loaded 20 cases of oranges and 16 bags of apples, about 350 pounds in all, onto a cart and then into their truck. It cost about $320.

Roxanne Preston, her husband and daughter delivered fruit to firefighters working the Sawmill fire in April. (Photo: Roxanne Preston)

They got on the road, leaving baby Owen at home with a sitter. They took Billie Grace with them.

The fire had crept close to an area Roxanne knew well. She and Billy used to go to nearby Patagonia often, to hike and fish, taking State Highway 83.

Now the fire had shut down that route. They made their way there on back roads.

Roxanne tried to prepare herself for the smell.

In 2015, she was caught off guard when she got a whiff of the Finger Rock Fire in Tucson from a distance and had a panic attack. Her palms grew sweaty. Her heart pounded, and she began to hyperventilate.

Now Roxanne was headed to the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District station, near the first fire she had confronted since then.

If State Highway 83 had been open, it would have taken an hour and a half or so. With the detour, it was more than two hours before they got there. She worried how she would react.

Smoke, but no panic

When Roxanne introduced herself to the firefighters at the station, she told them that her husband had been one of the 19 hotshots killed in the Yarnell fire. There was silence for a moment.

“These are people who risk their own lives every day,” Roxanne said. “They never think it will happen to them.”

Yet there she stood, her loss all too real. Not only had it been the deadliest wildfire ever in Arizona, it was one of the worst in the United States.

Roxanne told them about the non-profit group. She told them she had brought fruit.

“You should have seen the appreciation in their eyes and also the empathy,” she said.

As they unloaded the truck, Roxanne could smell the fire. She breathed in and waited for the panic. It didn’t come. Not this time.

“I was able to beat back the anxiety,” she said. Harry stayed close to her.

He’s the one who noticed a banner hanging high up on the brick wall inside the fire station and pointed it out to Roxanne. “In memory of 19 fire fighters,” it said.

Roxanne picked up Billie Grace and showed it to her. “That’s for your daddy,” she told her.

In the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District station, there is a banner that honors the memory of the 19 men killed in the Yarnell Fire. (Photo: Roxanne Preston)

“My Daddy Billy?” Billie Grace asked. She calls Harry “Daddy Hop,” a nickname from his initials.

Yes, Roxanne told her. “Everybody fighting the fire are Daddy Billy’s friends. They used to work with your Daddy Billy.”

Billie Grace grinned. She noticed that everybody who used to work with her father wore green pants.

Remembering Daddy Billy

Roxanne still tells Billie Grace stories about her father, and Billie Grace tells them to Harry.

Some mornings she will come into the kitchen and stretch dramatically. Harry will ask, “How did you sleep?”

“I slept good,” she told him. “I dreamed of Daddy Billy.”

“Your Daddy Billy came to visit you?” Harry asked. He listened intently as she recounted her dream.

Harry wants to raise Billie Grace the way her father would have. He often asks Roxanne, “What do you think Billy would want?”

Billie Grace is headstrong and independent. “I’ll say, ‘Billie Grace, you need to listen to me,” and she will say, ‘No, Mom, you need to listen to me.’” It is hard for Roxanne not to laugh. Her mother doesn’t hold back though. She tells people Roxanne was a lot like that as a child.

Owen, born in March, is a content baby. His sister contends he belongs to her alone.

Together, the four of them are making a life together.

“Through my experience, I have learned life is a gift. You have to live it.” Roxanne said. “What’s the point of living a life if you aren’t happy?”

As they left the fire station, Roxanne was happy they made the trip. And she was glad she brought Billie Grace.

“I wanted to take her so she could have a positive outlook on fire instead of a negative one,” Roxanne said. She wants Billie Grace to meet people who did the work her father did. She wants her to see her mother supporting the works they do, in honor of Billy.

Because she wants her daughter to respect fire, to be mindful of it, but not to be afraid. She doesn’t want the smell of smoke to ever make her feel the way her mother did for so long.

Because even though Billie Grace never got to meet her father, Roxanne wants her to remember him.

Reach Bland at karina.bland@arizonarepublic.com or 602–444–8614. Read more here.

About the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute

In 2015, Roxanne Preston, whose hotshot husband Billy Warneke was killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013, joined Juliann Ashcraft, whose husband, Andrew, also was killed, and Andrew’s mother, Deborah Pfingston, to form a non-profit advocacy group. Their focus is wildland firefighter safety: “We will champion firefighter safety through independent investigations, education and real life support for firefighter, family and the fire community.”

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This article was originally published on azcentral.com on May 19, 2017. Read it here.

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