A Family of Firefighters
July 1, 2013 1 Comment
As many of you know, I was personally devastated by the deaths of the 19 wildland firefighters in Arizona. Joe Woyjeck is a good friend of mine who is a captain on the L.A. County Fire Department and vice president of the L.A. County Fire Museum. His son Kevin, who was just 21, was killed Sunday as a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Kevin very much wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
Here is my piece from Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, about the Woyjecks and how they are symbolic of firefighting families across the country.
A Family of Firefighters
By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal
July 2, 2013
Firefighting creates a kind of informal family, the way cops and soldiers bond in jobs that are more than a job and any given day could be your last. Firefighting is also often a family affair in a literal sense. Go into most any firehouse, and you’re likely to find two or three firefighters with the same last name. They’re brothers, cousins, uncles and, increasingly, sisters, aunts and daughters. And you’ll find fathers and sons.
Kevin Woyjeck’s dream was to join his father, Joe, on the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Joe Woyjeck is the captain of Station 23 in Bellflower, one of the county’s busiest engine companies. Until Sunday, Kevin was a 21-year-old part-time emergency medical technician in L.A. He was also a member of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots wildland crew based in Prescott, Ariz.
Sunday was Kevin’s last day as a firefighter. He and 18 of his fellow crew members were killed while battling a wildfire in Yavapai County, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. A calamitous wind shift caused the worst U.S. wildland firefighting loss of life in 80 years.
“As a fire captain I looked forward to the day I got to pin a Los Angeles County Firefighter badge on him,” Joe said Monday in an email, too inconsolable to talk on the phone. “Now I have to bury him.”
The Woyjecks’ story is not uncommon in the fire service. Joe Woyjeck grew up in Seal Beach, Calif., and always knew he wanted to be a Los Angeles County firefighter. Like a lot of kids in the 1970s, he watched “Emergency!,” the Jack Webb-produced television show that introduced viewers to L.A. County firefighters and chronicled the early days of paramedicine. In one of those ironic twists of fate, the Woyjecks, through Joe’s work as the vice president and driving force behind the Los Angeles County Fire Museum, became good friends with one of the stars of the TV show, Randolph Mantooth.
Kevin had known the actor since childhood, but even without that bit of glamor Kevin almost certainly would have pursued the job: He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.
While he was still in high school, Kevin earned his EMT certification and began working on a private ambulance in L.A. County. Young firefighters often toil at these low-paying jobs for years while they take entrance exams or pay for training to try to improve their chances of joining a full-time department. It’s hard to find a firefighter or EMT who got into it for the money.
Over the past few years, Kevin took fire-science classes at Santa Ana College, got his Wildland Firefighting certification and worked on the Bear Mountain wildland crew in South Dakota for a season. But he eventually came back to California to pursue his dream of joining L.A. County. His father helped him pay his tuition to the El Camino College Fire Academy so Kevin would have his basic firefighting certification and maybe get a job on a part-time department while he waited to test for L.A. County.
Kevin Woyjeck joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew three months ago, on April 1. He loved wildland firefighting, one of the most dangerous and lowest-paying jobs in the fire service. And he loved the people he worked with.
“He was a kid who always had a smile on his face, and sleeping in the dirt was no big deal,” his father said.
It is unfathomable that on the day Kevin Woyjeck died, 18 other families received similar heartbreaking news. But the threat of disaster striking is the job’s constant shadow. Even during the Woyjeck family’s darkest moments in the days to come, I doubt that they have any regrets about the career that Kevin chose. Rather, I’m sure that Joe takes some solace in the fact that, in the end, Kevin was doing something he loved—just like his dad.
Mr. Yost, a former firefighter/paramedic in Highwood, Ill., is a volunteer at the West I-10 Volunteer Fire Department in Katy, Texas.