Fallen firefighters honored at California Wildland Firefighter Memorial

Fallen firefighters honored at California Wildland Firefighter Memorial

08 October 2011

published by www.swrnn.com

USA — After more than 50 years, Carlo Guthrie still cries over her husband’s death—and on Saturday, her tears were bittersweet.

Carlo, the wife of fallen California Division of Forestry fire truck driver John Guthrie, was among the more than 300 who gathered for the dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial off the Ortega Highway.

“The tears will never stop. I bet you everything when there’s a wildland fire, there’s widows out there watching that fire, I always am,” she said. “And now there’s a place where John and all California firefighters who gave the ultimate sacrifice can be honored.”

The memorial site sits off the Ortega in the hills above Lake Elsinore, and near the grounds where crews battled the deadly 1959 Decker blaze, which claimed the life of John and five other firefighters.

It serves as a spot where families, comrades and survivors can reflect.

The memorial consists of a red brick Maltese cross, guarded by a rock wall with fire plaques embossed with the names of fatal fires, the county, year and the number of fire personnel lost in the blaze. The ground in front of the monument is covered in red bricks engraved with the names of fallen firefighters.

Construction of the $150,000 memorial was completed earlier this year after more than a decade of work. Mostly private funds and some discretionary funds disbursed by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors paid for the project.

Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins, Supervisors Bob Buster and Jeff Stone along with families of firefighters and more than 100 firefighters from throughout Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties, including retired fire officials attended Saturday’s event. Eight members of the 1966 El Cariso Hotshot Crew, who battled the tragic Nov. 1, 1966 Loop Fire near Sylmar in the Angeles National Forest, also attended. The blaze killed 12 members of the 31-member hotshot crew.

Richard Leak, a survivor of the blaze and former foreman with the hotshots, said the dedication ceremony was tough to swallow at times and the sight of the memorial was humbling.

“I’m really proud about what’s come about this,” Leak said of the memorial. “It’s an honor to be here and help others remember.”

Leak was 19-years-old when he was part of the El Cariso hotshots and battled the Loop Fire. He lost most of his fingers in the blaze and remembered the day like it was yesterday.

“We were cutting a line downhill then the winds changed. A small fire shot up below us. A hot pocket of heated gas exploded and trapped us. It was over. We lost most of our crew. It all happened in about 20-30 seconds but if felt like forever down there.”

While he said it gets easier to talk about the day of the fire as he gets older, the vivid memory continues to linger.

“I think about it every day,” Leak said. “And that’s why having this memorial is important. It gives guys like us a second to reflect. I’m honored.”

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