PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- Volunteers have spent three months painstakingly recording and preserving thousands of letters, photographs and other items left at a memorial wall for 19 wildland firefighters who died in a north-central Arizona blaze. Now they say they're weeks away from wrapping up the project.
The volunteers have been processing the remembrances that grief-stricken family members, friends and strangers left on the fence bordering the fire station that the Granite Mountain Hotshots once called home.
"One day, I really lost it," said Deborah Balzano, who has worked four days a week on the project. "I found an infant's onesie with the words, 'My daddy is a hero.'"
The 19 men died June 30 while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire.
After dismantling the memorial wall in early September, the core group of volunteers has returned week after week to meticulously sort, photograph and assign numbers to the items before storing them away, for now, on tidy shelves.
City officials are still deciding on a permanent home for the items. City spokesman Pete Wertheim said he expects an announcement to be made next month regarding a memorial.
The official end of the Tribute Fence Preservation Project is scheduled for Jan. 17, but volunteers hope to have much of the work done before Christmas, the Daily Courier reported (http://bit.ly/1fqhPzo).
Just like the fence served as a forum where the community could show its grief, volunteers say the preservation process has helped them deal with the tragedy.
"I wanted to do something," Marian Powell said. "That was the same motivation people had for putting things on the fence — they wanted to do something. This is my way to do something."
Ered Matthew said that for many, the fence served as "therapy through art and creating something."
Ted Pohle, a retired schoolteacher, said he found the children's tributes — including many miniature toy fire trucks — especially touching.
As for the future of the archived items, Prescott officials say a decision is pending.
Until then, Wertheim said he called other communities that have experienced large-scale tragedies such as Tucson, Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., where mass shootings occurred in 2011 and 2012.
"The one common denominator in all of their advice is to not rush things," said Wertheim, adding that some communities take years to develop plans for permanent memorials.