By Tim Gaynor
PRESCOTT, Arizona (Reuters) - Outside a fire station in Prescott stand 19 long-handled shovels propped up against a chain-link fence adorned with flowers, flags, ribbons and memorabilia - a makeshift memorial to the 19 fallen firemen who called the Arizona town their home.
The fast-growing shrine has become a center for the outpouring of grief over the loss of the young members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting team, who died battling a wildfire outside the town of Yarnell on Sunday.
Their deaths turned an otherwise rather ordinary wildfire, one of dozens burning across the western United States, into the most deadly U.S. wildlands blaze in 80 years and left Prescott, the home base of the Hotshots crew, reeling.
But the shrine outside the firehouse has offered residents a place to express their emotions.
"It helps a lot. I had to get down here because I couldn't stop crying at home," Missy Acknuff said on Tuesday as she brushed away a tear.
"I want to let their mothers know how proud they should be of them," said Acknuff, who has three sons serving in the military.
On Tuesday evening more than 2,000 people gathered at Prescott High School to pray for the firefighters, their families and the entire community.
Nineteen purple balloons - a color traditionally representing fallen firefighters - were released and gently drifted south, toward the fire. The crowd held glow sticks, cell phones and other lights at times during the vigil.
FIRE STILL BURNING
John Dickerson, lead pastor from Cornerstone Church in Prescott, opened the 90-minute vigil with a prayer. God was with the fallen firefighters when no one else could be, Dickerson said.
"We couldn't put our arms around them, so he put his arms around them. We couldn't whisper 'Everything is going to be OK,' so he whispered 'Everything is going to be OK," he told the firefighters' families, who were gathered in front of the stage.
As offerings outside the firehouse piled up, some 500 firefighters labored on the outskirts of Yarnell, about 30 miles southwest of Prescott, where scores of homes were destroyed in a fierce fire flare-up on Sunday.
The blaze, ignited on Friday by lightning and stoked by strong, erratic winds, has blackened at least 8,400 acres of thick, tinder-dry chaparral, oak scrub and grasslands northwest of Phoenix, authorities said. About 200 structures, most of them homes, were destroyed.
Yarnell and the adjacent town of Peeples Valley, which together are home to roughly 1,000 people, remained evacuated.
Clay Templin, a fire incident commander, told residents at a community meeting that evacuees would probably not be allowed to return to the homes before Saturday.
'HOPE AND COMMUNITY'
The memorial grew by the hour on Tuesday with new contributions - T-shirts and caps from distant fire departments, condolence cards, photos, U.S. and Arizona state flags.
A woman reading "The Firemen's Prayer" doubled over, sobbing uncontrollably.
"And if according to your will, I have to lose my life, please bless with your protecting hand my children and my wife," went one verse of the prayer.
An overwhelming sense of gratitude for the fallen men, and firefighters everywhere, was manifest in many of the mementos left at the shrine. Spontaneous cheering and applause burst from bystanders whenever a fire truck passed through the streets.
Prescott, a quintessential western town with an historic past, was once the capital of the Arizona territory in the 1860s, perched in the state's rugged north-central highlands.
Its downtown is dotted with cowboy clothing stores, restaurants and shops but the city's motto, "Welcome to everybody's hometown," seemed at odds with the somber mood of many, as friends and family recalled the idiosyncrasies and tragic ironies of their loved ones who perished in the blaze.
One of them, John Percin, 24, who joined the Hotshots six months ago, had been out of work for some time with a leg injury until rejoining the team last week to fight the Yarnell Hills fire, friends said.
"He was always so energetic about wanting to get in and fight a fire," buddy Levi Weinberger told Reuters. "Right before they all went out that morning, he put up a Facebook post which said, 'Pray for me and my brothers while we go and fight this battle.' That was the last thing we heard."
Fire officials say the 19 men were out carving a fire break with hand tools on one flank of the fire Sunday afternoon when strong winds from a thunderstorm abruptly turned the flames back in their direction. They apparently were overtaken by flames in a matter of seconds before they had a chance to seek shelter.
The precise circumstances of the tragedy remained under investigation.
(Additional reporting by Brad Poole and David Schwartz; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou, Paul Simao and Lisa Shumaker)