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Yarnell Hill Fire: Wildland Firefighter Foundation helps families

(Source: CBS 5 News) (Source: CBS 5 News)
(Source: CBS 5 News) (Source: CBS 5 News)

Nineteen elite firefighters died fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire last month, and over the past few weeks, there has been an outpouring of support for their families.

But what happens when the cards, letters and casserole dishes quit coming?

That's where Vicki Minor and her team come in.

Minor, a 2008 CNN Hero, created the Wildland Firefighter Foundation to provide emergency funds and long-term assistance to families who often have nowhere else to turn.

Minor arrived in Prescott, Arizona, shortly after the tragedy and has already provided financial assistance to 12 of the 19 families. On Tuesday, for example, she mailed a check to a grieving mother in Colorado so that the mother could attend her son's funeral.

This kind of rapid response is the foundation's specialty.

"When a firefighter dies in the line of duty ... their benefits aren't immediately available," said Burk Minor, Vicki's son. "We know the bills keep coming."

The group's plan is to eventually connect with all of the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and offer them assistance, whether it's for immediate needs such as flights or hotels or for long-term needs such as housing or medical expenses.

"They're in a tremendous amount of pain," Vicki Minor said. "It's hard enough to lose one. But when you lose 19 that are tight -- a brotherhood -- it's a domino effect."

The men who died were part of an elite team of wildland firefighters known as hotshots -- one of just 109 such crews in the United States. Wildland firefighters are a group, Vicki Minor says, that tends to be scattered throughout the country, and their work often takes them far from home.

"Our firefighters are nomadic," she said. "Some of them are from New York, some of them are from Idaho. They're not usually in one town, and rarely do they ever die in the town they are (from)."

The fact that crews are so often spread out makes her services even more necessary, Minor says. Her group receives private donations, predominantly from other wildland firefighters.

The assistance not only helps families get through hard times, it helps them feel that they are still a part of the wildland firefighter community.

"We do long-term recovery with them," she said. "We keep them connected for as many years as they need to be with us."

She hopes to unite the families of the 19 with others who have also lost loved ones, so they can help provide emotional support.

These are "people who've really been there, (who) understand ... like no one else can," she said. "They're going to help these families a lot. We've got women and family members who will be supporting these people after everything calms down."

For Vicki Minor, who got involved with the wildland firefighter community more than two decades ago, it's a labor of love. Since 1999, her nonprofit has helped thousands of firefighters and their families and raised more than $2 million to assist them.

She plans to keep doing the work as long as she can.

"I will do anything to protect them and help them," she said.

If you'd like to get involved and help the families of the fallen firefighters, visit the Wildland Firefighter Foundation or one of several firefighter charities listed on Impact Your World.

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