A California firefighter who died while battling what has become the largest blaze in the state’s recorded history was honored in a memorial service Saturday, Dec. 23 in his home county.
The celebration of life for Cal Fire Engineer Cory Iverson, 32, of Escondido, wove raw emotion into the rituals of a line-of-duty death as Iverson’s widow, his younger brother and other family members spoke.
Iverson died Dec. 14 in the Thomas Fire outside of Fillmore, Calif., about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Iverson’s service, held at the Rock evangelical megachurch where about 15,000 people worship every week, had thousands in attendance and a worldwide audience via live, streaming video. California Gov. Jerry Brown, who met privately with the family before the service, was among the many officials on hand.
The firefighter, who had been with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection since 2009, died of burn injuries and smoke inhalation while fighting what has grown to a 427-square-mile wildfire as of Saturday night. His survivors include his wife, Ashley, who is pregnant with their second child; and their 2-year-old daughter, Evie.
► Friday: Thomas fire becomes California’s largest wildfire in history
► Wednesday: After brief lull, strong winds could send huge wildfire roaring back
► Dec. 17: Fallen firefighter honored by crowds on overpasses during procession
Iverson “lost his life for one very simple reason: He put others first,” said Chief Tony Mecham of Cal Fire’s San Diego unit.
Mecham, who gave Saturday’s most extensive comments, spoke of what he had learned after spending more than a week immersed with Iverson’s grieving family and friends. Iverson was goofy and shy growing up but by high school had “come out of his shell” to be defined by determination, Mecham said.
“When playing baseball, he would sleep with his glove on and his bat in the bed,” Mecham told attendees. Along with siblings Luke and Amanda, Iverson’s extended family of cousins and in-laws played a huge part in his life, including a Cal Fire firefighter uncle who mentored Iverson in his career.
Iverson, who was born in Escondido, first rose through the ranks as a volunteer before Cal Fire’s Riverside unit hired him in 2009, Mecham said. Officials there recognized his talent and physical fitness, promoting him in his second season to a sought-after helicopter position on a crew of firefighters based in Hemet, Calif., who were dropped with chainsaws and hand tools to attack fires without water or other support.
“They defeat fire with just sheer brawn and their brains,” he said of the storied unit. Iverson also worked as a hot shot in the Angeles National Forest before being promoted to engineer in 2016.
Among the people and agencies Mecham thanked during his remarks were Chief Mark Lorenzen of the Ventura County Fire Department and the department’s honor guard.
“The Ventura County honor guard was with Cory within 30 minutes” of the incident and hadn’t left his side since, Mecham told attendees.
► Dec. 16: Ferocious California wildfire grows more erratic as winds pick up
► Dec. 15: Thomas fire grows as Southern California braces for powerful winds
► Dec. 14: Firefighter dies battling Calif. blaze, now 4th largest in state history
Mecham also thanked California Highway Patrol officers who accompanied Iverson’s remains Dec. 17 during a procession from Ventura, Calif., to San Diego.
“For 203 miles last Sunday, we were never alone,” he said.
A firefighter honor guard at the service swelled at times with the keening drone of bagpipes and solemn tap of a drum corps.
Iverson’s younger brother, Luke, broke down several times when speaking to the crowd.
“He was my best friend and my confidant,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I looked up to him, and I’m extremely proud of the man that he was.”
Luke Iverson also said he found peace knowing his brother was “a God-fearing man and that he is now in heaven with Jesus.”
Cal Fire via AP
Iverson’s widow, Ashley, spoke of the overwhelming support the family has received and of her own struggles with anxiety and fear. But after describing her own grief, she referred to the strike team with Iverson when he died.
“What I am not are those men that were with him that day,” she said. “My heart is obliterated for you. None of us can come close to fathoming the place you were in.”
Cal Fire is conducting a review of the fatality. Iverson’s death occurred in the morning in rugged terrain about a mile or so off a major road after the volatile fire’s eastern front had erupted in the Topatopa Mountains above Fillmore.
The Thomas Fire started on the evening of Dec. 4 below Thomas Aquinas College, outside Santa Paula, Calif., on the east side of California 150.
Fueled by strong winds and dry air in vegetation ripe for burning, the blaze rushed toward Ventura, where it destroyed hundreds of homes, and continued up the coast past La Conchita. The wildfire also burned north toward Ojai, reaching behind Lake Casitas into Santa Barbara County as far as Gibraltar Road.
As of Saturday, Dec. 23, the Thomas Fire was estimated to be 78% contained. As it raged, more than 1,000 structures were destroyed, a majority of them residences.