USA — Fifty years ago Saturday, Gary Johnson’s 18-year-old firefighter brother died from injuries he suffered battling one of the Inland area’s most deadly wildfires.
The memory of Steven Wesley Johnson writhing in pain for a week in a hospital bed, with burns so severe that their mother did not recognize him, remains seared in his mind.
“They turned the mirror away so my brother couldn’t see himself,” Johnson, 71, said. “I have flashbacks every now and then thinking about it.”
Johnson was one of seven firefighters who died in the Decker Fire above Lake Elsinore on Aug. 8, 1959.
On Saturday morning, Gary Johnson, of Norwalk, helped pull a black cloth off a brick wall to unveil the new California Wildland Firefighter Memorial, in the Cleveland National Forest just up Highway 74 from the site of the Decker blaze.
The memorial honors all firefighters who have died battling a wildfire in California. Names of each fire and the number of those who died fighting it are etched into polished-granite plaques that are interspersed with gray bricks.
The wall is a more personalized and elaborate version of a plain plaster-wall memorial built on the site in 1998. The memorial fundraising committee plans to construct some type of centerpiece — probably a statue — in front of the wall, said committee President Carlo Guthrie. The group also wants to add landscaping and benches.
Guthrie, whose husband, John, died in the Decker Fire, said the memorial provides a place of reflection and remembrance for family members of the fallen. It also reminds the public of firefighters’ sacrifices.
“After the fires are gone and the firefighters are gone, people forget about them,” said Guthrie, of Riverside. John Loop, a retired Cal Fire foreman who helped battle the Decker Fire, proposed the memorial in 1995 after simple wooden markers honoring the seven Decker victims disappeared from canyons where they had been placed.
The memorial has 97 plaques. More will be added when details of 26 other deadly fires are confirmed.
As the unveiling ceremony took place, firefighters were trying to tame a wildfire in Santa Cruz County in Northern California that has blackened nearly eight square miles. Another fire in Santa Barbara County has been burning for almost a month.
“I challenge you, I challenge myself,” Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins said. “We don’t need to see another firefighter die.”
Yet as firefighters noted Saturday, fatalities usually occur when a blaze unexpectedly blows up or shifts direction, leaving firefighters with nowhere to go.
Ed Cosgrove was battling the Loop Fire near Sylmar, in Los Angeles County, in 1966, when it suddenly exploded, rushing rapidly up a steep canyon wall where Cosgrove and 26 other firefighters were.
Cosgrove, now 65, dropped to the ground. A wall of fire passed over him, burning 38 percent of this body. He waved his hands over the scars that cover much of his arms, hands, legs and face. The San Marcos man spent 3 ½ months in the hospital. Twelve coworkers, including the two who were on each side of him battling the blaze, died.
After Cosgrove helped unveil the new memorial, he searched for the plaque honoring the Loop Fire victims. Then he took a photograph.
“I cry every time I hear of a firefighter dying because I remember the screaming and the absolute hell,” Cosgrove said. “You just don’t forget that.”