On July 13, Jessica Varney got out her camcorder and captured some of the last moments of her husband’s life as he played with their 3-year-old son, Nolan, and 5-year-old daughter, Maleah, near his bulldozer.
Braden Varney, a Cal Fire Heavy Fire Equipment Operator (HFEO), was called to work a short time later to battle the Ferguson fire, which had broken out off Highway 140 not far from his Mariposa home.
Cal Fire officials lost contact with Varney that night. The next day his body was found alongside the bulldozer at the bottom of a ravine.
During his funeral Monday at The House Modesto, Jessica Varney spoke of that recording and the other tokens by which she will remember her husband. Tokens like the dirt- and grease-stained pants he wore the day before his death that serve as a symbol of his hard working nature, and of the “reminder” he put in her phone last year.
“I love you unconditionally. You are my world. I will be a better husband and father. Know that I want nothing more to make your dreams come true,” it read in part.
“There is nothing more he could have given me to satisfy my deepest dreams,” Jessica Varney said. “Braden’s work here on Earth has been perfectly completed.”
Hundreds of firefighters from more than 20 agencies came to the service from all corners of California. Families of other fallen firefighters also attended and condolences were sent from fire agencies from around the country including Arizona, Texas and Florida.
“It does not matter where the fire family is from; we are all a part of the family and, Jessica, you will always be a part of the family as well,” Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit Chief Nancy Koerperich said during her eulogy.
Koerperich spoke of the efforts it took to recover Varney’s body from the ravine.
The encroaching fire and the steep terrain hampered efforts the first day and the fire overtook the site the next.
On July 16 hand crews and dozer operators cut a fire break around the site so a recovery team could get to him.
After loading Varney’s body into a basket and covering it with an American flag, the plan was to have a helicopter hoist him out, but the smoke made the task too hazardous.
So the “crews and fire captains fought the steep terrain and lovingly passed Braden hand over hand from his resting spot to bring him out of the ravine” as Amazing Grace played over a loud speaker, echoing “through the canyon as a soundtrack to the mission at hand,” Koerperich said.
“Firefighters knew what was at stake, they knew it was dangerous, they knew the fire was coming, but that’s what firefighters do,” she said.
“That was truly an amazing recovery of Braden ... truly a labor of firefighter love ,” Koerperich said.
Varney’s Cal Fire uniforms were on display during the services, flanking family and friends who stood on the stage at the church to tell stories about the fallen firefighter and how operating heavy equipment was in his blood.
“He roamed these mountains his entire life,” said his friend and fellow HFEO Dean “Woody” Mullis. “From the start it was normal to see him sitting on his dad’s knee” as he drove heavy equipment.
Varney’s father, Gordie Varney, also a HFEO for Cal Fire, made Braden his first snow plow when he was a 4-year-old. He made it out of a riding lawn mower and a water tank heater chopped in half as a blade.
His mother, Lynn Varney, often caught him sneaking out of the house at first light to go to work, according to his obituary.
The father and son would later work alongside each other on the same fire lines after Braden Varney began his career at Cal Fire in 2007.
Gordie Varney passed away in 2012 from work-related cancer.
Jessica Varney acknowledged them both during her eulogy, saying to Lynn Varney, “The husband you shared your life with and the son you bore were both taken by fire ... these men went down in infamy due to their unending integrity and character ... The legacy they left behind is nothing short of the absolute most heroic.”
To her husband she gave this parting message: “farewell for now; everything you were is eternally inscribed on every fiber of my being for every day, every minute, every second for the rest of my life.”
The services came to a close with the ringing of the bell, a tradition in the fire service to honor those who have given their lives. A final end of duty call was read by a fellow firefighter.
“His task completed, his duties well done, to Braden Gordie Varney, his last alarm, he is going home.”