Firefighter killed: 'The toughest man I've ever met in my life'

Firefighter killed: 'The toughest man I've ever met in my life' »Play Video
John Hammack with his granddaughter.

SISTERS, Ore. – John Hammack’s family said there was never a dull moment when he was around. The man who grew up in a logging family and loved to compete at the rodeo was killed on Thursday while helping to clear trees ahead of a lightning-sparked wildfire in Central Oregon.

“He’s the toughest man I’ve ever met in my life,” said Taylie Waite, Hammack’s granddaughter. “He would give you the shirt off his back, to anybody, to a stranger. He wasn’t shy about anything. He would do anything for anybody.”

Hammack, from Madras, was working to remove hazardous trees near the small wildfire when a falling tree hit and killed him. A second man, Norman Crawford of Sisters, was hit in the shoulder and later released from the hospital.

The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office said the top of a tree the men were cutting broke and fell on them. The sheriff's office and the U.S. Forest Service will further investigate the incident.

"We're always committed to improving our safety, and certainly committed to learning something from this," said Jean Nelson-Dean, Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman.

“He was the best at what he did,” Waite said of her grandfather.

Waite said Hammack might have had a premonition that something bad was going to happen before he went out for the day.

“I think he knew he was going to go that day. He told his wife he wanted her to pray for him that morning when he got called out,” she said. “I think that’s how he would have wanted to go. Either that or (at the) rodeo.”

Though most envision firefighters battling flames, the crews that cut trees play a large role in containing wildfires. They may be cutting trees to establish a fire line, or they may be cutting one because it's judged to be a hazard to firefighters. It's leaning on another tree, for example, and could come down.

Falling crews generally go in twos — a faller runs the big saw and the swamper watches out to make sure the tree is leaning correctly as the cut is made.

In the town of Sisters near the fire, wildfires are a common occurrence this time of year. Still, that doesn’t make dealing with this news any easier.

“The thunder and lightning start, everyone gets a little stressed out,” said resident Ryan Moffat.

Moffat said the Sisters community is strong and grieving along with Hammack’s family.

Hammack's body was taken to Redmond Memorial Garden on Friday by procession that included his family, firefighters and law enforcement, the sheriff's office said.

Fire crews were not able to recover his body on Thursday after the tree fell. But as is tradition with firefighters, somebody sat near his body without ever letting it out of their sight.

“It’s a matter of respect, it’s not just securing the scene so they can do a thorough and effective investigation,” said Lisa Clark with Deschutes National Forest. “We take care of our own and we keep an eye on him all night.”

Clark said with danger still high, fire crews have to stay focused as they mourn.

“It’s a matter of balancing the sorrow and the feelings this brings up with the need to get back to work,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of time to step back and take a breath. Our fire crews need to get back out there. They’re trained to do that, they’ll do a good job, but he’ll be in their thoughts.”

Earlier this week, the National Interagency Fire Center listed the Northwest as its highest priority, giving Oregon and Washington the first shot at crews and equipment as resources become available. That's typical for this time of year because the Northwest has a later fire season — late July and August — than most of the other 10 regions. The fire season tends to start in the Southeast and shift to the Southwest before migrating north to Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

Nationally, wildfire season has been relatively mild, with the total number of fires and the area burned running at about 60 percent of the 10-year average. The Pacific Northwest hopes to follow the trend, but the fire center on Thursday released its fire outlook for August and it raised concerns for the region because of the dry land.

"We paint the areas that are predicted to be most active in red, and almost all of Oregon is painted red for August," said Don Smurthwaite, a fire center spokesman based in Boise. "The fire danger is real in Oregon."

The wild card is lightning, which started several large wildfires in southwest Oregon last week and ignited the blaze in central Oregon that led to Thursday's fatality.

Eight wildfires considered to be major were burning in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday. The largest was the Colockum Tarps Fire in Washington state, which was 30 percent contained after burning about 125 square miles of dry grass, sagebrush and light timber and destroying several homes and outbuildings.

In Oregon, most attention has gone to the Douglas Complex wildfires in the southwest part of the state. They have combined to scorch about 45 square miles of forestland. No houses have burned, but nearly 500 were threatened. People in more than 100 homes were advised to evacuate, but some have been allowed to return.