BASTROP, Texas (Nexstar) — Not long after the ceremony honoring fallen firefighters began, nearly everyone in attendance seemed to be fighting off tears.
Weatherford firefighter Richard “Andy” Loller was recognized for his service on Friday, memorialized in a garden at Camp Swift at the site of the Capital Area Interagency Wildfire and Incident Management Academy. Loller died in June 2018 after he had a medical emergency while responding to a wildfire in West Texas, north of Big Bend National Park.
Those who knew him said he embodied firefighter ideals of honor, duty and integrity.
“Andy loved fire,” Mary Leathers, with the Texas A&M Forest Service, said. “He loved firefighting, he loved being around firefighters, and just the atmosphere that a fire or an incident brings.”
“When you’re out on a fire it doesn’t matter if you are from a volunteer department or from a career department, we are all here together for the same mission,” Leathers explained.
Leathers should know. She was raised in a family with a passion for public safety. Her father, Mike Fisher, was the emergency management coordinator for Bastrop County. Fisher was one of the founders of the wildfire academy that now draws in crews from around the world to train. He died in 2017, and is also memorialized in the garden. Several other wildland firefighters and academy leaders who passed away are also commemorated in the garden.
“I have a great deal of pride in what he accomplished,” Leathers said with a radiant smile.
The purpose of the ceremony, and the academy overall, highlights a message of training and education, paired with the realization that that some first-responders have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“This academy was founded [on the basis] that ‘we live to train,'” Texas A&M Forest Service’s chief of law enforcement Les Rogers said. “It also drives home that this is a serious business that we’re in and you need to watch out for your brothers and sisters out there as they’re fighting fire and just keep some of the basics in mind.”
Rogers ranks 2018 in or near the top five of the worst fire seasons in Texas history. Forest service data shows firefighters responded to over 8,300 wildfires in 2018, burning more than 523,000 acres in Texas so far. Last year, there were approximately 9,200 wildfires in the Lone Star State, damaging more than 715,000 acres.
“If you look at the worst fire seasons in the state of Texas, this one was up there close to number five as being one of the most losses, acreage and those kinds of things,” Rogers said.
“We came off of about a 350-day response following Hurricane Harvey that went through the state of Texas. All of our fire personnel with the agency, with all of the local fire departments were tapped out because they had been responding to flooding and the hurricanes and then they rolled right into a winter fire season up in the panhandle and then it went down to West Texas and then crept into the central part of Texas and of course the hill country… along I-35 and then all the way down in South Texas, and then we also had some in East Texas,” Rogers said.
Historic drought followed by torrential rain created prime conditions for wildfires this year, Leathers said.
“It’s your friend, your neighbor, a family member that could be at risk of losing their home or their property so we were busy,” she said. “It was a long season,” she continued. “We were tired, but we were dedicated to making sure that we protected the folks in the state of Texas and their property.”
This week also encapsulates Fire Prevention Week. The theme this year is “Look, Listen, Learn.” Firefighters urge Texans to look for places fire can start, listen for the sound of smoke alarms and learn two ways out of each room.