Community Mourns Loss of Firefighters, Veterans While Honoring Service

The city's "Uncle Sam" lost his 25-year-old grandson in a devastating Arizona wildfire

By Tony Shin
|  Thursday, Jul 4, 2013  |  Updated 7:51 PM PDT
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Hundreds joined together in San Jacinto to celebrate our freedom and honor the men and women who keep the country safe. The Inland Empire community remembered Billy Warneke, 25, and Chris MacKenzie, 30, both Hemet High School graduates who were killed battling an Arizona wildfire. Tony Shin reports from San Jacinto for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on July 4, 2013.

Tony Shin

Hundreds joined together in San Jacinto to celebrate our freedom and honor the men and women who keep the country safe. The Inland Empire community remembered Billy Warneke, 25, and Chris MacKenzie, 30, both Hemet High School graduates who were killed battling an Arizona wildfire. Tony Shin reports from San Jacinto for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on July 4, 2013.

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Fourth of July celebrations took on a new meaning this year in the San Jacinto Valley, an area that has seen a high number of military casualties in recent years and, a few days ago, that lost two Hemet High School graduates to a devastating wildfire in Arizona.

For the past 14 years, Jack Warneke has played the role of a star-spangled Uncle Sam as the annual San Jacinto/Hemet Fourth of July parade.

But this year, his grandson Billy Warneke is not waving from the crowd. The 25-year-old firefighter was killed along with 18 others in his Granite Mountain Hotshot crew while battling the Yarnell Fire in Prescott, Ariz.

The Inland Empire’s Uncle Sam took time out of his parade to remember his young grandson, who knew, while attending Hemet High School, that he wanted to serve our country.

"From the time he started ninth grade, he was in ROTC and he took great pride in it and he was on the honor guard," Jack Warneke said.

"When he got up to be a senior, he was the cadet commander for the whole unit at Hemet High School," he added.

The firefighter spent years in the Marines, served a tour of duty in Iraq in 2007, and also as an Air Force pilot, flying cargo planes in Vietnam, his grandfather said.

Billy’s years of service are why Independence Day is so special to the Warneke family.

It’s that dedication to service that drew hundreds of residents to the parade Thursday.

"We owe it to our soldiers who've served in the past and who serve today for our freedom," said Barbara Meza, of San Jacinto.

And with the deaths of 19 firefighters – many of them with young families, and four from Southern California – fresh in their minds, celebrants remembered the sacrifices of other public servants.

"Also all the firefighters throughout the country that have given their lives and put themselves in harm’s way to protect us," said Brian Nestande, assembly member 42nd District.

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