Community gathers in display of respect

Brad Poff of Eagle Point lost a longtime friend and fishing buddy in the helicopter crash Aug. 5 that killed seven local men fighting wildfires in Northern California's Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

"He died helping people," Poff said of his friend Bryan Rich. "I believe he'd be happy with what is going on today. We appreciate what he did for us."

Poff was among the 3,500 others gathered at the Lithia Motors Amphitheatre Friday morning to remember their friends, family members and fellow firefighters who died in the crash.

Some in the audience of the Iron 44 tribute did not know the victims but came to show respect.

"I'm here because even though I never knew any of them personally, I feel connected," said Maureen Bozeman of Medford.

Bozeman's grandfather and husband are retired firefighters, and two of her sons are currently on active duty. Her other sons aren't old enough yet, she said.

"The fire world is very small," said Marie Hoover of Central Point. Hoover is a crew boss for a wildland firefighting company.

She met David Steele and Matthew Hammer on the job in May. Hoover had spent seven days fighting the Buckhorn fire, where Steele and Hammer were later killed.

"They were outgoing, jokesters," Hoover said. She remembers having water fights with them on the fire lines.

"It's heartbreaking every day you're on the line," she said.

Members of Grayback Forestry Inc., the company that employed those killed in the crash, filed into the amphitheater in almost complete silence. Members of other contract wildland firefighting organizations and fire districts from across Oregon and Washington and the Oregon Department of Forestry attended to pay their respects to their comrades.

"We all do the same work," said Brian O'Leary, a firefighter with East Pierce Fire and Rescue of Bonney Lake, Wash. O'Leary had just attended a service honoring East Pierce's fire chief, Dan Packer, who died July 26 fighting the Panther Fire in Northern California. O'Leary and his wife drove to Medford for the tribute just to support the families, he said.

The tragedy has forced many firefighters to evaluate the dangers of the job, though none said anything about switching career paths.

Milan Torrez, a crew boss with Pacific Oasis fire in Ashland, said the Iron 44 tragedy reminds him of the dangers of his work.

"It could be any of us at any time," said Steve Dodds, owner of Pacific Oasis, adding a tragedy like this "makes you evaluate the danger and understand the reality of what you're doing."

Torrez said the respect and the camaraderie between firefighters he saw at the ceremony was typical of the firefighting community.

"When you see another firefighter on the side of the road in yellows, you always stop to help him out," Torrez said.

Nine posters with the victims' photographs and biographies were taped to the outside of the amphitheater to allow mourners the opportunity to leave blessings or notes for the victims' families. The posters were given to family members Friday after a private reception.

Reach intern Stacey Barchenger at 776-4464 or by e-mail at intern1@mailtribune.com.


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