Central California Fallen Firefighters Golf Tournament
Some Gave AllAugust 2015
By Jordan Venema
We still see them, the shirts memorializing the sacrifice of first responders during the 9/11 attacks, with broad letters printed FDNY – the Official Fire Department, City of New York – yes, we remember. Then in 2013, 19 City of Prescott firefighters were killed fighting a wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz. – the highest wildland firefighter death toll in the United States since 1933. It took only a moment, a collapsing building, a rushing fire to engulf these men and women, the first responders who daily put their lives on the line to protect the lives of others.
We cannot forget these tragedies. Not just because of the number of lives lost, but because of the significance of their sacrifice. Whether we’re talking about 100 or one, they’ve given the same thing: everything. And that everything is precisely the loss experienced by the families of those firefighters who gave their lives. This is why nonprofit National Fallen Firefighter Foundation was founded in 1992: to be the first responders for the families of fallen first responders.
Tulare County firefighters Jody Adney and Michael Damron (Station 8, Ivanhoe) know what it’s like to be on call, to jump into the thick of the flames. Damron describes fighting fires like “going out to fight a dragon that you don’t know if you’re going to slay or it’s going to slay you.” For some, that would be enough giving, but not Adney, not Damron, and not the many other Tulare County firefighters who coordinate the annual Central California Fallen Firefighters Golf Tournament, a fundraiser for the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation.
“Losing a firefighter is a terrible thing for a department, but for many families the firefighter is the primary breadwinner, and that’s where this comes in,” Adney says about the tournament, which will be held at Ridge Creek Golf Course, Dinuba on Sept. 25.
The volunteer-organized tournament, one of about 30 national tournaments, raises money directly for the national foundation, which then can be used for the families of fallen firefighters. “Kids camps, counseling, to help a family pay their mortgage, to send kids to college, scholarships, to pay electric bills,” lists Damron. “That is why we do this tournament.”
In 2013 and 2014, the tournament raised $15,000 and $30,000, respectively. What’s the goal for this year? “Well, if it was Michael’s way,” Adney says, “we’d do $60,000.”
While the tournament raises money through ticket sales (144 spots in the tournament), it mostly relies upon sponsors, like Sequoia Beverage and Tulare Federal Credit Union. Ranging from $250 to $10,000, individual and business donations directly benefit the families of fallen firefighters. “We’re pushing for sponsorship,” says Damron, who also recognizes the importance of communicating to sponsors and golfers the story of these heroes.
Each hole will have a biography of a fallen firefighter, and the tournament begins with a memorial service. “We really try to bring the focus home,” says Adney, “and want to remind them why they’re here.”
Because, explains Damron, “this is bigger than a golf tournament. This is about people’s lives, helping people get back on their feet who’ve lost a loved one.”
That isn’t limited to the major tragedies of 9/11 and Yarnell. The national foundation wants a more inclusive definition of “in the line of duty.” Says Damron, “they’re fighting every year to get more and more added,” whether that includes aneurisms or cancers, even heart attacks.
“You don’t hear about those,” Damron says. “What you hear about are the Yarnell 19, or when an aircraft goes down, something like that. But you don’t hear about the everyday firefight.”
And sometimes, people don’t even hear about the fallen firefighters from their own backyards. Reedley couple Marci and Steve VanderGriend lost their son, Zachary, in 2008, when he died in a plane wreck. He was an aerial firefighter, explains Marci, “and was taking off from Reno for a California fire in Stockton and his tanker went down. He was killed with the pilot and co-pilot.”
But Zach was a contracted firefighter working for a private company, and whether by accident or oversight, “he was overlooked for his service,” says Marci.
Then the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation contacted the VanderGriends to attend a national memorial in Maryland in 2009. “I get chills talking about it,” says Marci. “The morning of the memorial, we walked through – the NFFF calls it the sea of blue – it’s firefighters in their dress uniforms standing shoulder to shoulder on each side of you, making a walkway till you get to your seat.” Zach’s name was called, she was handed a rose and badge, “and for the first time, Zach was honored with the flag of his country. And that experience meant more to us than I can ever explain. They cared enough to remember and honor him, and it didn’t matter who he worked for, it didn’t matter who paid his check. It mattered that he was a hero, and gave his life to save other people.”
The National Fallen Firefighter Foundation provides everything from financial to emotional support to families, but also a network for survivors. “That’s the biggest thing,” says Marci, “that they bring us together, so we can help each other.”
The VanderGriends will attend this year’s Central California Fallen Firefighters Foundation tournament. Like the national memorial in Maryland, it brings families together, offering support while memorializing the sacrifice of their heroes. And though services can never equally match the sacrifice of these fallen firefighters, the funds raised through the tournament is at least a start – to give back to the families of those who have gave everything. It’s also a way to say, “Thank you, we remember.”
Central California Fallen Firefighters Golf Tournament
Sept. 25, 7am – 7pm • Ridge Creek Golf Course, Dinuba
For sponsorship information or to sign-up, contact (559) 972-4823 or www.firehero.org