Fallen firefighters: we remember and thank them

A speech given at the Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial Service, Sonora, October 7, 2009. Please note, the unidentified firefighters in the photo are, last I heard, still very much alive.
Thank you, Chief Barrows, for inviting me to take part in this special day of remembrance for our fallen firefighters.
First, to the brave firefighters here today from Tuolumne, Twain Harte, MiWuk Village, and other fire districts, to firefighters for the City of Sonora,  the USFS, CalFire, and Tuolumne County: thank you!
We are indebted. You are professionals, dedicated to protecting our homes, communities, and forests from ruin. Words cannot express this county’s gratitude for what you do.
 Today we honor them – your fallen brothers and sisters – we honor what they did for us, and we remember. We note sadly, that though we miss them life goes on. But their lives are still meaningful for ordinary and extraordinary reasons. Reasons I think you well understand, but let me explain anyway.

Eighteen years ago I gave birth to my daughter. The night before, I felt no inkling of physical symptoms that her beginning – her life with us – was about to begin. And yet, the next day, there she was. So comes life often times. And so comes death. Unexpected. An interruption of all we had planned and dreamed.

You know that what you do is dangerous. So did the fallen ones. Did they go to bed the night before they died with an inkling that their next day would be different?

Like them, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring or have the foresight to see the outcome. We don’t know to do things differently. Neither did they.

So how do we make sense of their deaths? How do we turn tragedy into sober advantage for the next firefighter?

I found a website called Wildfire Lessons Learned. There I read many tragic stories, but on that website and elsewhere I’m sure, those tragedies are turned into wisdom and hope for your sakes and ours.

A firefighter named Paul Chamberlin coined the term fire safety portal in 2006. He noted that firefighters can pass through a safety awareness portal where new perspectives are achieved and reality is meaningfully altered. Transiting the portal, he said, is often related to traumatic events likened unto a wakeup call. After these events,  well-conceived fire safety initiatives are developed to assist others who face a similar portal so that they do not experience the same personal trauma.

In other words, what happened to them – your fallen comrades –  in that portal has changed your realities. Your agencies made safety changes. Your crews now act differently. Their deaths, in a strange and uncomfortable sense,  benefitted you and future firefighters.

We lost Eva Schicke in 2004 and James Eakin in 1982. Lori Quinones lost her husband Arnie in the Station Fire in August. Their deaths and those of many others over the years – in cities, counties, and on wildlands– have yielded important information, changed perspectives, and altered your reality. For that we thank and honor them. Because of their deaths, others will live.

We want you to live. Let me tell you as a local government official, that no home, no town, no forest is worth your lives. Be safe. Come back.

Before you every day – on every fire – is life or death. When you go to bed tonight, tomorrow may look just like any other day when it could in fact be different.

Arnie and Lori Quinones’ first and last daughter Sophia was born two weeks ago. Had Arnie known it was his last day on the Station Fire, he might still have lost his life in his personal safety portal. But somehow, at the very least, I believe he would be thankful for a positive outcome – an altered reality – from his experience. I think he would have wanted those lessons to be learned and others’ lives saved.

Life does go on. Arnie has a daughter, though Lori lost her husband. Eva is no longer with us. But the firefighter standing next to you is. Someone may live because of Eva Schicke, James Eakin, John Greeno, and way too many others like them.

With each passing day, we get further away from the last time we saw them and further away from our past. But today we pause and once again draw near to remember and thank them for lessons learned.


One comment

  1. Thank you ,Teri, for giving voice to what all of us who live in this fire vulnerable but beautiful area would like to say to those wonderful firefighters who protect us. They are all heros. Pat Monahan


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