When Mike Wheelock visited Medford resident Jonathan Frohreich in the Univeristy of California, Davis, Medical Center in Sacramento earlier this week, the firefighter was in critical condition in the burn center.

When Mike Wheelock visited Medford resident Jonathan Frohreich in the Univeristy of California, Davis, Medical Center in Sacramento earlier this week, the firefighter was in critical condition in the burn center.

Wheelock, owner of Grayback Forestry Inc., had the unenviable task of telling Frohreich, 19, that he was one of the few survivors of the crash of a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter Tuesday evening in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California. Frohreich was among four, including a pilot, who survived the crash. Seven Grayback firefighters, a pilot and a U.S. Forest Service aviation inspector died in the crash.

"He was upset about that but, to show you his heart, he said, 'How are you doing?' " Wheelock recalled. "That's the heart of these firefighters, not only Grayback employees, but all of them. They are more worried about other people."

Wheelock, 54, a former U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper who, in 1979, started the firm known across the West for its firefighting expertise, shared the anecdote Friday afternoon to illustrate the strong bond among firefighters.

He talked to reporters at the company's Central Point base after speaking privately to several crews of firefighters who had just returned from fighting wildfires in California. All ten of the Grayback firefighters aboard the Merlin-based Carson Helicopter Inc. aircraft that crashed worked out of the local base, Wheelock said.

"I told (the crews) that it's OK, that we all handle these things differently," Wheelock said. "Some are angry. Some may be sad and break down. Some may be numb, going through post traumatic stress syndrome. I told them that whatever they go through, that's OK, and that it is OK to talk, to cry, to be angry."

For the firefighters, the deaths were like losing family members, said Wheelock, who expressed his own deep sadness for the deaths and injuries caused by the accident.

"These firefighters spend two weeks on assignments together," he said. "They sleep and eat together. They do everything together. They tell their stories. They laugh. They get mad together. They are in harm's way together. Just like in the Army, they are in a war out there — they come together.

"I'm proud of these firefighters," he added. "They are brave, safe, hard-working, professional and well-trained firefighters. Not only the 20 there on that mountain, but all the Grayback workers throughout the country."

The firm still has firefighters working in northeastern Oregon, Montana and California, he said.

"Many have returned home and are standing down to stay by their fallen comrades," he said. "Others have elected to work, and that's their way of dealing with this. Firefighters are a very family-oriented group of individuals that care for their brothers.

"Our hearts and condolences go out to the families," he said. "I am so sorry for their losses and the loss of the Carson helicopter (pilot)."

He said Grayback is working closely with grieving teams provided by the federal agencies, and a group of chaplains has also been available for the firefighters.

The bond which firefighters develop while working together will help them heal, said Ed Float, 61, of Selma, a former smoke jumper who has been with Grayback since its inception. He helps recruit firefighters and train crew bosses.

"We'll get through this together," added the Marine Corps veteran, noting he knew several of the victims and had met all of them. "We have a lot of great people. And we have a job to do. We will do it.

"The individuals I knew were great young men," he said. "One of the real joys about working here is being around the great people who come to work here. That's why it's tough (to lose them)."

Grayback crew boss Jesse Kiene, 29, whose crew was on the Iron complex fire one ridge away from the crash site, agreed.

Kiene, who has been with the company for a decade, said recovery will be especially difficult for the injured.

"As far as the guys in the hospital, we will support them as much as possible, help them in any way possible, to get through this ordeal," he said. "Both mentally and physically, they have a long road ahead of them."

Kiene hasn't given any thought as to when the firefighters will return to the fire lines.

"Getting back on the horse, that will have to be an assessment based on everyone's mental capacity as we work through this," he said. "It's not something you can put a date on. I know a lot of us are ready to go out of respect.

"But we also have to spend time to make sure our heads are in the game," he added. "The last thing we want to do is go into something unfocused."

By its very nature, firefighting is dangerous work, Wheelock said

"You have thousands of vehicles each day driving on dangerous roads," he said. "You got smoke. You got fire. You got helicopters. You got retardant planes.

"Whenever you are using helicopters in steep, mountainous terrain, it is dangerous," he added.

However, he noted helicopters are indispensable for quickly transporting firefighters into remote areas.

He said he hoped the deaths will spark a debate over forest management. Fuels management projects around rural communities should move forward and not be held up by litigation, he said.

"You have to fight fires," he said. "You can't just turn your back on them because they will come to town. They will burn homes. You can't just pretend they aren't there and they'll go away. They will come to you if you don't come to them.

"I hope from this tragedy lessons are learned and something good can come out of it," he added. "The fire season is just beginning and we've lost a lot of firefighters. They need your support. They need your prayers."

The accident has also been gut-wrenching for local Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and U.S. Bureau of Land Management employees, many of whom knew Grayback firefighters by their first names.

"I've never grieved so hard in my life," said Joel King, ranger for the forest's Wild Rivers district. "Bad things happen to good people. I don't understand why."

"The fire community is all family," added Jim Whittington, an experienced firefighter and spokesman for the BLM's Medford District.

"Anytime something like this happens, it affects everybody. It's tough for us and catastrophic for the families. Our hearts and prayers go out to them."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.