Falling tree kills Forest Service firefighter battling Tahoe-area blaze

Michael Hallenbeck
Michael Hallenbeck U.S. Forest Service

A 21-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter from Shingle Springs was killed Saturday after being struck by a falling tree as crews were mounting an assault on a small wildfire near Lake Tahoe, authorities said Sunday.

Michael Hallenbeck died while suppressing the Sierra fire at about 5:30 p.m. just south of Echo Summit in El Dorado County. Efforts to resuscitate him were not successful.

“Our hearts go out to the family, friends and fellow crew members of this brave firefighter,” said USFS Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore. “The loss of any member of our Forest Service family is a tragedy.”

Hallenbeck’s parents, Toni and Kirby Hallenbeck, said in a statement that their son was an avid sportsman who loved the outdoors. He was a snowboarder and hiker and played football, basketball, soccer, tennis, golf and ice hockey. Before joining the Forest Service, he worked two seasons at the Sierra at Tahoe Resort.

“We are so very proud he stepped up to work hard and be brave to put others before himself,” his parents said in the statement Sunday night. “We cannot even begin to express the pain our family is going through and we ask for the respect of our privacy as we go through this devastating ordeal.”

The Sierra fire is one of several dozen lightning-caused fires that began in Northern California national forests on Saturday.

Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Gabor said Hallenbeck was responding in a remote area as the fire was burning between the Lake Tahoe Management Unit and Eldorado National Forest. At the time of his death, ground and aerial crews were trying to suppress the fire and keep it from spreading, Gabor said.

A second firefighter was injured in the accident and was treated and released from a hospital, the Forest Service said. The small blaze was reported to be 100 percent contained Sunday, with some remaining hot spots and crews from the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire and the Nevada Division of Forestry on scene.

In a statement Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown said he and first lady Anne Gust, were grieving for the latest fallen firefighter.

“Anne and I are grateful for U.S. Forest Service Firefighter Mike Hallenbeck’s service and on behalf of all Californians, we extend our deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues,” Brown said.

Hallenbeck’s death was the second since more than two dozen wildfires began burning in California, many caused by lightning storms and worsened by drought conditions.

On July 30, U.S. Forest Service firefighter David Ruhl of Rapid City, S.D., was killed by a wildfire in the Modoc National Forest. Ruhl was an assistant fire manager for the Big Valley Ranger District.

“The grief we are feeling at the sudden loss of two of our firefighters – Dave Ruhl last week on the Modoc National Forest and now Mike Hallenbeck on the Basin – reminds us of the sacrifices these men and women make every day,” Moore said.

On Sunday, the worst of California’s wildfires, the 70,000-acre Rocky fire in Lake, Colusa and Yolo counties, was reported 70 percent contained.

Yet Sunday night, another significant blaze was burning in the Jerusalem Valley area of Lake County. Mandatory evacuations were ordered in the fire’s path as it spread to more than 2,000 acres, Cal Fire reported.

That evacuation order came a day after Cal Fire said all residents stranded by the Rocky fire could return to their homes. More than 13,000 residents got mandatory or voluntary evacuation notices after the fire broke out July 29 but all were allowed to return to their homes by Saturday morning.

The Rocky fire has destroyed 43 residences and 53 outbuildings, while damaging eight other structures. Nearly 2,400 fire personnel have been battling the blaze.