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Following the money: Where are donations to hotshots' families?

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PHOENIX (CBS5) -

So many people didn't hesitate to reach into their wallets on word of the heartbreaking tragedy in Yarnell. Millions of dollars have been collected so far.

But now comes the question: Where is all of that money?

Three charities were initially approved by Prescott Fire to take in donations: The 100 Club of Arizona, the Prescott Firefighter's Charities/United Phoenix Fire Fighters Association and the Wildland Firefighter Foundation in Idaho.

"There's no words for how we felt here when we got the news of a whole crew going down," said Burk Minor, the director of WFF.

Walking through the small office in Boise, T-shirts representing 114 hotshot crews from all over the country are on proud display.

"I got more admiration for them than words can even talk about," said Minor of the elite firefighters.

The foundation's walls are covered with hundreds of photos of those who've died fighting wildfires over the past decade. Thirty-one have died this year alone, including the 19 men from the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The Wildland Firefighter Foundation aims to help all of them, but says the magnitude of the loss of life in Yarnell sparked a flood of donations.

"The outpouring of the community was overwhelming," said Minor.

The response was like nothing his tiny, four-person staff had ever seen before, crashing his computer system and inundating his staff.

"Through any fatality, we're busy here, but this exact circumstance, you know, my staff's been going 24/7," said Minor.

Thousands and thousands of donation sheets are piled atop desks and tables. They add up, he says, to $264,000.

Minor admits the much higher numbers of between $300,000 to $500,000 he reported last month were wrong. He had come to Arizona during the memorial and took estimates from Idaho over the phone.

"We had an outpouring of stuff to our other campaigns we already had in place, and at that time when those came in, those numbers weren't separated, and I apologize for that," said Minor.

CBS 5 is following the money to make sure every dollar donated to the hotshots' families is accounted for.

Minor says $34,000 was personally handed to a handful of the victims' families in Arizona, and the foundation has decided to send the remainder of $230,000 to another charity. 

"We're going to deliver this money to Prescott Fire. Let them disburse it as they see fit with the lump sum that they have," said Minor.

That lump sum from Prescott Firefighter's Charities is about $2.2 million after a huge benefit concert and a flood of other fundraisers.

They're working alongside the United Phoenix Fire Fighters Association, which has collected close to $2.4 million.

The pair has put together an advisory board for recommendations on how to disburse the money in a way that protects the families from tax ramifications and still abides by 501(c)3 regulations. 

The advisory board is getting help from someone who outlined similar challenges after 9/11.

A spokesman tells CBS 5 they want to share their plan directly with all of the families before addressing the media, but promises every dollar will go to the families of the fallen.

At the 100 Club of Arizona, Executive Director Sharon Knutson-Felix has already paid out more than $1.1 million of the $3 million taken in to assist the Granite Mountain hotshot families.

"You want proof? Here's hundreds of checks I've written," said Knutson-Felix as she showed CBS 5 the 20 files she keeps on the 19 families and the lone survivor.

The donations have gone to the families in the initial cash disbursement and since then, paying their bills. Hundreds of thousands were also spent on the memorial and individual funeral expenses.

"I want to be able to give the viewers the confidence that we've done the right thing, without hurting the survivors anymore," said Knutson-Felix.

She has been personally meeting with those survivors to find out what they need. She's met with six or seven so far.

"It's really hard. I will tell you that the first thing they say to me is that they're scared to death now. Everybody in the world knows how much money they're getting," said Knutson-Felix.

She says the families are very grateful but still grieving, and what the organization gives to each of them is confidential.

"Our position right now, and as we're meeting with the families, is to try to eliminate all of their debt as much as possible," said Knutson-Felix.

Ultimately, she said 100 percent of the donations will go to the Granite Mountain Hotshot families.

All three of the organizations acknowledge they're only able to help thanks to the generosity of a giving community. Now they're asking for one more thing.

"You have to trust people to do the right thing," said Knutson-Felix.

A news conference is scheduled for Friday to hear the firefighters unions' plans to distribute the $4.5 million.

There are several other organizations who have and are still collecting money. CBS 5 will also be following up with them.

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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