Firefighters say final goodbyes to 5 who fell batttling Southern California wildfire

Monday, November 6th 2006, 6:05 am
By: News On 6

DEVORE, Calif. (AP) _ Firefighters at a memorial for five colleagues killed in an arson fire expressed their feelings in the unique language of firefighting.

As thousands grieved Sunday in an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by soaring mountains, firefighters said they always could trust the fallen members of Engine 57 when they said it was OK to ``bump up'' _ slang for moving ahead along the fireline.

``Can we bump up? The answer from Mark and Jess, from Jason, from Pablo, from Daniel and from a loving God who now holds them in his hand is clear,'' said Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service.

``They are watching this piece of line, they can be trusted. Bump up, bump forward, move ahead,'' he added. ``This next section of line looks tough and we wish Engine 57 could be with us.''

The five were killed Oct. 26 when the wind-driven blaze started by an arsonist overtook them as they tried to save a house in the rural community of Twin Pines, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

``They loved doing their jobs, but they also loved going home afterward,'' said Jeanne Wade-Evans, a San Bernardino National Forest supervisor. ``This time they could not go home.''

Sunday's memorial, held not far from the area the firefighters protected, drew about 10,000 people.

The ceremony began with a procession of U.S. Forest service vehicles, each with the words ``In memory of Engine 57 firefighters, 10-26-2006'' on its door. The U.S. Forest Service honor guard, with bagpipers and drummers, marched underneath a huge screen that contained a picture of a firefighter boot and the words ``Always Remember'' as the service began.

``In the simple act of lacing up their fire boots, they were actually committing themselves to protect and to serve. We assemble here together a brokenhearted congregation,'' said Steve Seltzner, a U.S. Forest Service chaplain who has been meeting with families of the men.

Some two hours later, at the ceremony's conclusion, a group of U.S. Forest Service airplanes and helicopters _ including water-dropping tankers _ flew over the amphitheater as bagpipers played ``Amazing Grace.''

Those killed were Jason McKay, 27, of Apple Valley; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild, the captain of Engine 57; and Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.

It was the greatest loss of firefighters in a single incident while battling a wildfire since 14 were killed in July 1994 near Glenwood Springs, Colo., according to the National Interagency Fire Center statistics.

Police arrested Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, last week and charged him with five counts of murder and various counts of arson for the blaze. Oyler has said he is innocent.

Among those who attended Sunday's service were Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger said the men would be remembered as heroes.

``We will never forget their bravery, we will never forget their valor, we will never forget their sacrifice,'' he said.