Southern Arizonans are no stranger to wildfire. We've watched from the safety of the Tucson desert floor as the lines of blazing orange light up the mountains around us. We've smelled the smoke, squinted in the haze and seen what's left of burned buildings and blackened landscape after the flames have passed through.

None of that comes close to the deaths of 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire. Nothing could.

We extend our condolences to all who knew the 19 men who died near Prescott, fighting a wildfire that has engulfed homes and roared across brush-filled terrain.

Fourteen of the 19 men were in their 20s. Each should have had decades ahead of him.

So it falls to the people they served to continue their spirit of giving.

The firefighters, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, were trained. They were experienced. But the unpredictable nature of wildfires, pushed by wind and hot weather, proved what we all know in the abstract - everything can change in a flash.

The firefighters deployed their fire-resistant emergency shelters, a last-ditch effort to give them some protection in the hope that the blaze would travel over them with enough quickness that they would survive.

That's not how it came to pass.

Investigators will try to piece together the events of Sunday and explain why the 19 firefighters couldn't escape.

The only member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew who survived was away from the others and moving equipment, according to news reports.

No loss like this is isolated to one family, one group of friends. It's much deeper, broader. It's a loss that reminds us of the promise public servants, like these firefighters, make to us - that they will do whatever they can to keep us safe. That they will face danger so we don't, that they risk everything for their community.

It's a debt we are reminded of in tragedy, one that can't ever be repaid.

But we might try. Not by leaving mementos or flowers at a memorial, although those have their place.

We can follow the example of these 19 men and protect our communities. We can look out for each other and do what's in our own power to do - volunteer, check on a neighbor, gather canned food to donate.

Our gestures may seem small in light of this devastation, but they will not be inconsequential.

Our efforts can make a difference to someone else - and that's what those firefighters were doing when they took up their gear and went to do whatever they could to stop the flames.

We take to heart these words from Shon Do, 20, born and raised in Prescott, reported in the Arizona Republic. He said his uncle was one of the 19, and he had planned to join the crew this week. Do said he wasn't sure now what comes next. But he spoke for Arizonans when he said this:

"These guys did not die for nothing. They were out there protecting their community. I'll be damned if I am going to stand around while they made the ultimate sacrifice for their goal and not help them achieve that goal. That's a decision I have made, and I am proud to do so."

We can never fully express our gratitude to those 19 firefighters and their families and friends.

But we can follow their example.

Arizona Daily Star