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Wildland Firefighter Foundation / Articles and Letters / Previous Articles / Growing Compassion...

Growing Compassion...

Wildland Firefighter Foundation's Important New Fundraising Campaign
By Leslie Habetler, Guest editorial for Wildland Firefighter Magazine, June, 2004

Foresters say the cone of the lodgepole pine cannot open and release its seeds unless seared by fire. The seed that grew into the Wildland Firefighter Foundation took root and sprouted out of the fire of compassion on a warm night in July 1994 in south-central New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest.

A commissary contractor working the fire woke before daylight to find a camp in mourning and purple ribbons tied around every tree. Fourteen firefighters had just perished in Colorado on the unforgiving face of Storm King Mountain. The contractor remembers standing by her rig and looking up at the pre-dawn sky. “Help me help your families,” she whispered to the stars. She didn’t know how; she just knew she would. Vicki Minor is that kind of woman—a woman without education who started Northwest Contractors with $58 and grew it to more than a half-million dollars in just six weeks of providing services and goods to firefighters in the camps.

On the other side of the camp, Oklahoma hotshot crewmember Merlin Orange took out a sheet of notebook paper and began to sketch as his fellow firefighters sat in a circle around him. When he was finished, they blessed the drawing with a smudge of sweet grass and sage, and took it to Minor. She printed the image on T-shirts—a line of firefighters marching up the mountain into the sky—and raised $108,000 to help the families. The seed had sprouted, but its future remained far from certain.

Minor and the growing number of friends and workers who had raised the money wanted to make sure the families of the firefighters who had sacrificed their lives would receive emergency financial and emotional support. That’s how the idea of a foundation just for wildland firefighters took hold. Minor and her gang have been raising money and helping families ever since, even though the Wildland Firefighter Foundation didn’t become an official 501c3 until 1999. Minor, with no experience in managing a nonprofit foundation, was named executive director.

It hasn’t been easy. With the number of firefighter fatalities and serious injuries that have occurred in the 10 years since Storm King, Minor’s Foundation has distributed more than a quarter-million dollars to surviving families.

Sometimes the need exceeds the Foundation’s resources. Last year Minor had to turn down a request for help because the “jar” was empty. “I never again want to have to tell a family that I can’t help them,” she says.

That vow meant that the woman who had to learn to get up in front of a room full of people to ask for money is experiencing another “opportunity for personal growth,” as she calls it. She and the Foundation have launched a vigorous campaign to raise $1 million. She calls it The Power of One, a beautifully simple concept in which a person contributes $1 a week for 52 weeks to gain membership in the new 52 Club. When multiplied by some 20,000 firefighters in the field, this campaign will raise more than $1 million dollars for helping families, maintaining the Foundation’s National Wildland Firefighter Monument and educating the public about the role wildland firefighters play in protecting our natural resources and homes in the wildland-urban interface.

The campaign is taking off. Contract firefighting companies are challenging each other to match dollars contributed by their firefighters. Hotshot crews are enthusiastic about participating. The Lolo Hotshots in Montana are sending an extra donation with its 52 Club pledges. Industries and associations, such as the National Tree Fallers Association, are contributing as well. Corporations, especially those who profit from supplying the firefighting industry, are invited to step up and contribute generously.

The heart of the foundation is in Boise, Idaho, just a Pulaski throw from the National Wildland Firefighter Monument created by the Foundation and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Bill Mitchell maintains the monument grounds without compensation. Don Smurthwaite, BLM External Affairs Officer for NIFC, says he and Mitchell write letters to the families to let them know that a marker has been placed in their loved one’s name. The Foundation also presents each family with a replica of one of the bronze firefighter statues.

“This is a place where the families continue to come long after the casserole dishes are empty and the sympathy cards have stopped arriving,” says Minor. “They visit the monument and come by the office just to talk to us.”

When a firefighter dies or suffers serious injuries, the Foundation sends an emergency grant to their immediate family to help with expenses. According to Minor, the money is especially important for spouses and children of fallen firefighters who may have been the main breadwinner. (She says death benefits and other assistance may not kick in for months.) The Foundation also helps families connect with other services to assist with the grief and all the practical questions that arise with such a loss.

“Our connection with the families really never stops,” says Minor. “Long after the check is cashed, the emotional connection and support goes on … as long as they want it.”
It’s been almost 10 years since that night in the Lincoln National Forest when Minor beseeched the stars for a sign of how she could help. Perhaps Evelyn Craven, who lost husband Tom to the Thirtymile Fire in 2001, has answered her best: “Today I finally deposited the check sent to me last week. I can’t even begin to tell you what a relief it was to see that I wouldn’t have to worry about making ends meet. Tom was our sole provider for the family. I am still so numb and just going through the motions of living … I am trying to be strong for everyone and at least I have a lot of help. I thank you for the sake of my sanity, for the sake of my two beautiful children.”

Minor says The Power of One multiplied by all the wildland firefighters on the line and the generosity of a grateful public will ensure the families left behind will be taken care of by the community their fallen firefighters served with. I don’t doubt it for a minute.

For information about how you can get involved, call the Wildland Firefighter Foundation at 208/336-2996 or visit the 52 Club link at WFF’s Web site at www.wffoundation.org.


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