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‘Hotshot’ leader killed in Ferguson Fire remembered as ‘one of the best’

Brian Hughes, a 33-year-old captain on an elite hotshot fire crew battling the Ferguson fire, was remembered Monday as “one of the best.”

He was struck and killed by a tree Sunday while fighting the wildfire that burned 56,659 acres in Sierra and Stanislaus national forests as of Monday morning, with 30 percent containment.

Hughes was a “pillar of strength” as second in charge of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots, a team of firefighters trained to go into the toughest, most high-risk fires, said Woody Smeck, superintendent of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

Smeck described Hughes, who lived in Squaw Valley near Kings Canyon, as caring, kind, gregarious, outgoing and positive. “He was infectious ... just magnetizing,” Smeck said during a news conference in Ahwahnee near Oakhurst. “People were drawn to him. He was so well-equipped for the role of captain.”

Gov. Jerry Brown released a statement, extending condolences to Hughes’ “family, loved ones and fellow firefighters, who are still out in the field protecting lives and property.

“We are incredibly grateful for Captain Hughes’ service to our state and nation.”

State Capitol flags are being flown at half-staff to honor Hughes.

Fire and law enforcement officials released few details Monday about Hughes’ death, which remained under investigation by the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with federal, state and local agencies.

Mariposa County Sheriff Doug Binnewies said Hughes was injured close to the wildfire’s eastern boundary near the community of Yosemite West in Yosemite National Park.

Rocky Opliger, deputy incident commander of California Interagency Incident Management Team 4, said Hughes died after being assisted by a well-organized medical response team.

“We immediately had our advanced life-support personnel assigned quickly on scene,” Opliger said.

Smeck said Hughes had dreams of one day becoming a hotshot superintendent. He served with the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots for four seasons.

Hughes was on a two-week fire assignment when he was killed. His hotshot crew, described as a tight-knit team, are being sent home so they can be with their families.

Smeck said a website is quickly being constructed so people can share their condolences with Hughes’ family. Smeck said Hughes had a girlfriend who lives in his community. A memorial service has not yet been set.

A procession carried Hughes’ body from Mariposa County to the Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office in Modesto on Sunday afternoon.

He is the second firefighter to die while fighting the Ferguson fire. Earlier this month, bulldozer operator Braden Varney, 36, was killed after his vehicle turned over.

Seven others have been injured fighting the fire that started July 13. More than 3,700 fire personnel are now working to extinguish it.

No homes have been damaged by the fire. Yosemite West and Ponderosa Basin are among the largest communities most threatened.

Public information officer Jim Mackensen said firefighters would soon be doing more “backfiring,” fighting fire with fire, creating “good smoke.”

Yosemite Valley, closed since July 25, is expected to reopen by Aug. 3 if conditions permit.

The Ferguson fire is one of 63 uncontained fires across the country, which has called upon the service of over 26,000 firefighters — 11,000 of which are in California.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

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