When Redding Fire Prevention Officer Jeremy Stoke set out in his department vehicle the evening of July 26, his mission was simple: get as many people as possible out of the path of the searing blowtorch that was the Carr Fire.
A popular department veteran, Stoke’s commitment to getting the residents of northwest Redding out of harm’s way put him in the path of what was described as a “fire tornado” – a swirling funnel of flame the size of three football fields with winds of up to 165 miles an hour. It was later determined to have been the largest tornado in California history.
“Jeremy was one of a kind – he knew everybody, and everybody knew him,” said Redding Firefighters Local 1934 President Matt Oliphant. “His death hit us very hard.”
Sadly, Redding’s firefighters are far from alone in feeling the heartbreak of losing a brother in the line of duty. In the past year, five front line firefighters have died in the line of duty while battling three different catastrophic wildfires:
Cory Iverson, a CAL FIRE fire apparatus engineer, was battling the massive Thomas Fire in Ventura County last December when he was overrun by fire. Brother Iverson was 32.
Braden Varney, a CAL FIRE heavy equipment operator, was trying to prevent the spread of the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite when his bulldozer fell down a steep ridge. Brother Varney was 36.
Jeremy Stoke, a Redding fire prevention operator, died saving lives in the Carr Fire. Brother Stoke was 37.
Brian Hughes, a member of the federal Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot crew, also died battling the Ferguson Fire after being struck by a falling branch in an area of heavy tree mortality. Brother Hughes was 33.
Matthew Burchett, a Draper City Utah battalion chief, was killed while battling the record-smashing Mendocino Complex as part of an out-of-state strike team. Brother Burchett was 42.
Two other civilians involved with battling massive wildfires – a CAL FIRE mechanic and a private bulldozer operator – also lost their lives.
Beyond the unprecedented string of fatalities, California’s firefighters are being worn down by relentless pressure of what has been described as the “new normal.” Three of the six largest fires in the state’s history have happened within the last 12 months: the Mendocino Complex (the largest ever), the Thomas Fire (the second largest) and the Carr Fire (the 6th largest). In each case, thousands of firefighters from hundreds of departments massed to respond, many working weeks on end with little rest.
“I truly believe that the job is twice as violent, and twice as deadly as it was when I started 30 years ago,” said CPF President Brian K. Rice. “Where once there was a rhythm to the fires in California, we’re now seeing our firefighters on the front lines at Christmas. It is truly no longer a fire season, but a fire year.”
As the California fire service came to grips with the risks on the fire lines, Long Beach firefighters found themselves confronting the loss of one of their own from another kind of threat – random violence. Beloved Fire Captain David Rosa was responding to an explosion at a senior center this past June 25 when he was fatally shot by one of the residents. His fellow firefighter, Ernesto Torres, was also wounded in the attack. “Losing Dave leaves a hole in our hearts that can never truly heal,” said Long Beach Firefighters President Rex Pritchard.
In addition to the physical injuries and illnesses that have claimed firefighter lives this past year, 2018 has also been a year of coming to grips with the unseen, untreated injuries that are killing firefighters from within. Over a six-week stretch this past summer, three California firefighters committed suicide, a tragic byproduct of a job that forces human beings to bear witness to the unbearable over and over again.
Stepping Up: The Union is All of Us
When one firefighter falls, all firefighters feel the loss. In the wake of the tragedies of the past year, the firefighter family and the union family came together to support not only each other, but the families of the fallen and the communities they served.
Supporting each other: As Redding’s firefighters reeled from the shock of a monstrous fire and the loss of one of their own, the IAFF and CPF brought together a union “strike team” of support. IAFF 10th District Field Rep. Tim Aboudara spent a week based at the Local 1934 union hall, turning it into a command center and a focus of support for all firefighters on the Carr incident. IAFF peer support resources from Los Angeles County and Sacramento were also on the ground in Redding, visiting fire stations to offer support and listen.
L.A. County and L.A. City peer support resources also provided a critical lifeline for the members of Long Beach Firefighters in the wake of Brother Rosa’s death. “There was no way we could have handled the aftermath of something like this,” said Long Beach Captain Mick Hannan, who leads Long Beach’s peer support services. “We were very lucky to have these resources so close.”
Supporting our families: Upon learning of each line-of-duty death, CPF’s non-profit California Fire Foundation made resources available to the survivors of the fallen as requested. The Foundation’s California Last Alarm Service Team – Cal LAST – mobilized resources in the wake of the Redding tragedy, helping Local 1934 and Stoke’s family organize a memorial service celebrating his life. The Foundation also provided financial and emotional support for the other families, including helping to support the memorial services of fallen Arrowhead Hotshot Brian Hughes. CAL FIRE Local 2881 provided direct financial and memorial support to the families of their own fallen, as well as working with Cal-LAST to support the brothers and sisters of Local 1934.
Supporting their communities: In addition to the loss of life experienced in the Carr Fire, the blaze left a trail of devastation in its wake. It’s estimated more than 1,000 homes were destroyed, including those of some of the firefighters who were on the front lines. The California Fire Foundation’s Supplying Aid to Victims of Emergency (SAVE) program offered immediate financial relief to the fire victims through a $100 gift card. Some 800 SAVE cards were made available within 48 hours of the fire’s explosive growth, giving firefighters a chance to help their communities turn the corner from the tragedy.
What’s Next: California’s “New Normal”
The catastrophic losses of the past year have brought new attention to the risks firefighters face every day on the job. As the state moves forward to learn the lessons of this hellish year, CPF is focusing on areas seen as critical to addressing the ever-more-dangerous job firefighters face:
Resources on the front lines: The expanded wildfire threat comes at a time when many departments are still understaffed as a result of the Great Recession. The weeks-long deployments and endless hours of forced overtime are pushing firefighters to their limits. The chaotic weather patterns creating the heightened fire risk have also reinforced the need to do what it takes to try to keep small fires from growing into big ones. CPF has helped lead the fight to secure tens of millions of dollars to pre-position resources at times of high fire risk.
Personal protective equipment: The ferocity of modern wildfires demands a next generation of personal protective equipment. “We’re talking NASA-level protection,” said CPF President Rice. Cal-OSHA is in the middle of a complete update of PPE standards, an initiative led by CPF over the past decade. In addition, CPF’s Personal Exposure Reporting (PER) offers its members a convenient and simple way to document on-the-job exposures that could lead to job-related illnesses, such as cancer.
Critical incident peer support: Whether it’s the loss of a fellow firefighter or simply the overwhelming stress of long hours in the teeth of fire, peer support has become one of the most important tools for supporting members on the front lines. Through the joint labor-management Behavioral Health Task Force, CPF and its management partners are leading efforts to include peer support within the mutual aid ordering system, so peers are also “pre-positioned” to help assist.
“Our firefighters are facing risks that were unthinkable when I started out,” said President Rice. “We owe it to them to ensure they have the support, equipment and staffing needed to do this dangerous job.”