He retires after 28-year career with Prescott Fire Department, hours before 19 firefighters perish.
When you're getting ready to fly your American flag on and around the Fourth of July holiday this week, Jeff Knotek has a request.
"When they're putting that flag out up there in Crookston for the Fourth," he said, pausing for a moment to keep his composure. "Just ask them to remember those guys."
The "guys" the Crookston Central High School 1978 alum is referring to are the 19 members of the "hot shot" fire crew at the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department who lost their lives Sunday while battling a wildfire that was likely triggered by lightning a few days ago and fanned by monsoon-strength winds. Only one member of the hotshot crew survived.
Knotek wasn't on the hotshot crew, but he knew every one of the victims well, and knew their families, too. "We'd just had a big open house and barbecue to kind of kick off the season with the structural crews and the wild land crews," he told the Times via phone Monday. "Once the fire season gets started, you'll have guys go off for four months all over the place fighting fires."
After 28 years as a captain, paramedic and firefighter with the Prescott Fire Department, Knotek cleaned out his locker Sunday morning for the last time, as he was hanging up his firefighting gear for good in favor of a job as an registered nurse/paramedic at the Prescott Hospital.
"I'd gotten off my last 24-hour shift, it was a good shift and my oldest son had ridden along with me and seen some interesting stuff," Knotek recalled. "I left and did the normal things, running some errands and stuff, and then my friends started calling me in the afternoon. I figured they were wrong on the numbers. I didn't think something like that could have happened. I was kind of in a daze, I guess."
The "hotshot" crews get called out for the "really bad stuff," Knotek said. The Prescott crew had recently returned from fighting a wildfire in New Mexico, and now they were trying to protect homes in the small town of Yarnell, Arizona. "These guys are very dialed in, very experienced, and they've been on a ton of fires," Knotek said. "I'd equate it to special forces, they're kind of the special forces of firefighters."
Knotek doesn't know for sure, but he figures some monsoon-level gusts ignited a fire below where the 20 hotshot firefighters were battling the blaze above them. "I figure it came up the slope and got them," he said. "I'm just speculating on that, though."
So he returned to the Prescott Fire Department emergency operations center in order to help in any way he could. Mostly, it meant calling family members of the victims and driving around with police officers to notify family. "These are guys I've worked with, I worked with their dads, even their grandfathers," he said. "The first guy I saw, his grandson had passed away. Another guy who I've hunted with several times, his son passed away. It's pretty devastating, obviously, but you try to keep moving ahead and doing what you gotta do, and in this case it's doing whatever you can to help these people."
Wife, other son up here
Jeff and his wife, East Grand Forks native Staci (Berg) Knotek, have a lake home on Union Lake, and she and their youngest son are on their way there now to spend the holiday week.
Jeff was to begin his new job at the Prescott Hospital Monday, but those plans are on hold for a bit. "There are a lot of memorials to help set up and schedule," he said. "And the fire's still blazing out there. It's so busy here because it's such a tourist area and it's Fourth of July week, too. I'm not officially on duty, but I want to help in any way they'll let me."
Jeff said he's "still a big part of Crookston" and tries to get back to this area and the lake at least a couple times a year.
"I never, ever thought I'd still be down here 28 years later, but that's where life took us," he said, almost three decades after studying pre-med at UND. "It's a very tough time right now, and it makes you think of home."
Jeff is the son of Dale and Mary Ann Knotek.