Group’s courage, service lauded
As Ascension Parish sheriff’s deputy Will Brian belted out the final notes of “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes as part of a memorial Tuesday for the 19 firefighters who died Sunday in Yarnell, Ariz., a Baton Rouge Fire Department fire engine zoomed down Wooddale Boulevard en route to a call.
“As we’re taking a moment of silence and memorializing, we see firefighters responding and putting themselves once again in harm’s way,” state Fire Marshal Butch Browning said.
The sirens wailing through the air was a fitting end to the memorial hosted by Browning and state Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain at the Louisiana State Firefighters Memorial, which is next to the state Fire Marshal’s Office, 8181 Independence Blvd.
The 10-minute ceremony featured a traditional ringing of the bell for each firefighter as their final alarm, followed by a moment of silence and the playing of “Amazing Grace.”
Trapped by an out-of-control wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz., northwest of Phoenix, the Granite Mountain Hotshots broke out their portable emergency shelters and rushed to climb into the foil-lined, heat-resistant bags before the flames swept over them.
The firefighters rushed into the blaze to cut a fire line or firebreak, which is a break in the vegetation or other material that is used to slow or stop wildfires and brushfires.
By the time the blaze had passed, 19 men lay dead.
“When you think about courage, you think about these men and these people going into this wall of fire,” Strain said. “Many times people wonder if their lives will have made a difference. I can tell you that these firefighters’ lives have made a difference.”
Before the ceremony, members of the Wildland Firefighters placed tools of the trade, including a backpack with the same portable emergency shelters used in Arizona, under the bell next to the wall memorializing fallen firefighters as a tribute to their fallen brothers.
Bret Lane, assistant protection chief in the Wildland Firefighters, said elite firefighting groups train constantly for all contingencies, “but sometimes, there is just stuff that happens that we have no control over.”
Lane knows the loss the remaining Hotshot, identified by authorities as Brendan McDonough, is feeling because he has lost two friends in the line of duty in the 20 years he’s worked in the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry and survivor’s guilt comes into play.
“ ‘Why did I make it and the others didn’t?’ You know it’s just gotta be really tough on him,” he said.
Lane worked with Stephen Shaw, of Evergreen, who died in 2004, of a heart attack while fighting a fire in Webster Parish and Gordon Brian Brown, of Longville, who died in 2011 in a forest fire on the Beauregard/Calcasieu parish line.
Two others Wildland Firefighters, Harvel Dulaney and Albert Jenkins, both of Winfield, died in 1981 of electrocution outside of Alla, La., while fighting a wildfire.
Lane said the topic of not returning from a call is talked about, and they continuously drill and practice to keep sharp and focused.
“Complacency is our worst enemy,” he said.
The Wildland Firefighters operate out of the Forest Protection Branch in Strain’s department and operate in two-man teams. They are on call 24 hours a day every day.
Lane said Louisiana averages about 2,100 wildfires a year that the department handles with about 100 people. Lane and Strain said they would like to have at least 150 firefighters.
Budget cuts, the pay and the work itself are among the reasons that Strain does not have the number of firefighters he wants. He said sometimes his firefighters are fighting nine to 10 fires at once.
Strain has had to call in crews from other states to help.
Strain said he did not know any Hotshots and Lane said he would have to look over the list to see if he knew anyone.
Siblings Kyle and Olivia Osenenko went to the Fire Marshal’s Office with their grandparents for other business Tuesday, but arrived in time for the ceremony and attended to show their support.
“I know what their families are going through,” said Kyle Osenenko, choking up, with his arm around his sister, Olivia Osenenko, who was also choking up. “It’s tough.”
They lost their father, Scott Osenenko, 45, a volunteer firefighter with the Livingston Parish Fire Protection District Four, on Dec. 3, 2011, when he suffered a heart attack after helping seven people and a dog out of a burning mobile home on Florida Boulevard in Walker.
Kyle continues his father’s legacy as a volunteer firefighter in Livingston.
“It was something he loved doing and something I love doing too,” he said. “You just carry it on.”