Texas Firefighter Killed While Battling Huge Blaze in Mendocino National Forest

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The Doe Fire, one of 37 lightning-sparked blazes in Northern California's August Complex, shortly after it started Aug. 16, 2020.  (U.S. Forest Service )

Updated 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 2

The California Highway Patrol is investigating the death of a Texas firefighter killed Monday when her truck rolled off a remote backcountry road as she tried to escape a rapidly moving portion of the vast complex of wildfires that have burned a quarter-million acres in the Mendocino National Forest.

Diana Jones, 63, a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician from Cresson, Texas, who was working for a private contractor on the August Complex fires, died in the incident.

Jones served in the fire agency in Cresson, a town of 1,000 people about 25 miles southwest of downtown Fort Worth.

Cresson Fire Chief Ron Becker said Tuesday the community was stunned by news of Jones' death.

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"We're all numb. We're shell-shocked. She'll be sorely missed," Becker said.

The U.S. Forest Service said Jones and two other firefighters were working on the Tatham Fire, within the August Complex and about 25 miles southwest of Red Bluff, when the incident occurred.

"This was a tragic incident and our hearts go out to the family, friends and colleagues of the fallen firefighter," said acting Forest Supervisor Sandra Moore. "Right now we are committed to providing support to those involved, while safely continuing firefighting operations.”

Jones was working Monday afternoon on along Forest Route 25N09, a remote dirt road in the national forest, when the fire became more active. She and another firefighter got into their truck to escape the flames. As they reversed the vehicle, it plunged about 15 feet down an embankment and slammed into a tree, according to CHP spokesman Omar Valdez.

Jones was not able to escape the vehicle as fire engulfed it, Valdez said. The other person in the vehicle was able to get out but suffered burns that required hospitalization.

Jones had been working as an engine boss for K&L Fire of Summerville, Oregon, and based on social media posts appeared to have been assigned to the August Complex since at least Aug. 20. K&L's Facebook page says it has contracts to provide wildland fire engines. K&L declined to comment when contacted Tuesday.

Jones' death marks the second fatality among first responders helping battle wildfires in California since mid-August, when thousands of lightning strikes ignited hundreds of blazes around the state.

The other was also a firefighting contractor: Michael John Fournier, 52, of Rancho Cucamonga, a helicopter pilot killed while fighting a wildfire near the Fresno County town of Coalinga.

Becker said Jones had been with his department for five years and was a "big contributor" to the volunteer firefighting force of about 60 people.

On Sunday, Jones posted to Facebook a picture of the area where she was working. It depicted a burned-over landscape with a series of smoke-shrouded ridges fading into the distance.

Along with the CHP, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the incident, according to a Department of Labor spokesman.

Several private contractors, mainly heavy equipment operators, have been killed while working some of California's largest wildfires in recent years.

Robert Reagan of Fresno County died in 2016 when the bulldozer he was operating in a fire in Big Sur toppled down an embankment.

Garrett Paiz, a contract water tender driver from Missouri working on one of the October 2017 Wine Country fires, was killed when he lost control of his truck on a steep grade.

And Donald Ray Smith, a bulldozer operator from Pollock Pines in El Dorado County, was killed in the Carr Fire in 2018.

Several agency firefighters — from Cal Fire or other departments — have also died over the past several years in California blazes. They include Cory Iverson and Braden Varney of Cal Fire; Jeremy Stoke of the Redding Fire Department; and Matthew Burchett of Draper, Utah.

This post was updated to include new information from the California Highway Patrol.