Cedar City • Members of the Utah fire community, Cedar City residents and friends and family gathered Saturday at Cedar City Park to honor Joe Thurston, who died on June 30 while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.
Thurston, 32, a native of Cedar City, was one of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots based in Prescott, Ariz., who lost their lives battling the wildfire.
Saturday's event featured a barbecue, a raffle, and the selling of hats, T-shirts, baked goods and other items, with the proceeds going to a benefit fund established for Thurston's family. He is survived by his wife Marsena and two young sons, Collin and Ethan.
The event began with a flag ceremony in which members of the Cedar City Fire Department used ladder trucks to hoist a large American flag above 200 N.Main Street, while 23 other community members stood at attention, holding smaller American flags.
Friends and family took turns sharing memories of Thurston, who graduated from Cedar City High School and Southern Utah University.
"After talking to his friends, the miracle is not that we had Joe," Thurston's mother Gayemarie Ekker said. "The miracle is that we had Joe for as long as we did."
The comment drew laughs as Ekker explained that her son was quite the daredevil.
Friends went on to explain that Thurston was up to any challenge and was always pushing the limits, whether it was skateboarding, cliff diving or climbing on the roof of the family home.
In one of his final communications with his mother, Thurston said that Hotshot work was "hot, dirty and miserable, but we have fun. We're brothers, we have each others' backs. I know we're making a difference."
Pamela Royer, one of Thurston's oldest friends from childhood, said she couldn't remember the first time she met him or the last time she saw him.
"I think that's just because Joe was such a stable, steady, always-there-part of my life," Royer said. "I never had to worry about keeping in touch I knew as soon as I showed up he would say, "Hey, glad you're here, here's an adventure, let's go do it."
Friend Jay Overson read a letter of condolence from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, in which he thanked Thurston for his service.
"On behalf of all Utahns, I express our desire not only to mourn with your family, but also to commemorate your son's life and invaluable contribution," the governor wrote. "His selfless service to help fight wildfires throughout the west is commendable and commands our deepest respect and gratitude."
Several of Thurston's friends and family referred to him as an old soul. He may have been adventurous, but he was wise beyond his years, kind and dedicated, they said.
Groom Creek Fire District captain Joe Hernandez is a veteran of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot crew and was Thurston's captain in 2010 when Thurston began volunteering for the Groom Creek Fire District in anticipation of being hired by the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
"He was one of the best in this nation, and you would never hear him brag about it," Hernandez said.
After the memorial service, Hernandez explained that the Granite Mountain Hotshots were an international crew that could be called to anywhere in the world. Last year Thurston fought fires in North Carolina and Georgia.
"He was a relentless worker," Hernandez said. "He'd go and work out for hours at a time after a 10-hour work day, just so he could get in good enough shape to make the [Hotshot] crew."
Among the fire agencies on hand Saturday to honor Thurston were the City Cedar Fire Department, Brian Head Fire Department, Kanarraville Fire Department and Panguitch Fire Department. From Arizona, members of the Prescott Fire Department and Groom Creek Fire District were in attendance. Also present were representatives of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.