A capacity crowd filled The House Modesto church on Monday to pay tribute to Braden Varney, the Cal Fire heavy equipment operator who died fighting the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite as it burned close to his hometown of Mariposa.
Friends and family remembered him as a generous giant who stood 6 feet 6 inches, and even taller in the eyes of those he helped. They gave a standing ovation to Jessica Varney, who spoke eloquently of her husband's generosity” “Not long ago, I stood next to him as someone was applauding him for his fire-fighting service. But Braden plainly said, 'I'm just doing my job.' However, in reality he was doing what he loved more than anything in the whole world: operating equipment which he loved, in the mountains which he loved, for his fellow human beings, whom he loved to serve."
Fire chiefs believe Varney died in the early morning of July 14. When he did not report to base camp after his shift, a CHP helicopter was dispatched to look for him and found his bulldozer overturned at the bottom of a ravine.
The Ferguson Fire has burned 34,000 acres near Yosemite and is 13 percent contained.
Braden Varney is also survived by two small children, Maleah and Nolan, and his mother, Lynn.
Cal Fire management spoke during the service in Modesto about the effort to retrieve Varney's body. Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit Chief Nancy Koerperich praised the firefighters who made two attempts to retrieve him after the rollover accident.
"Over a loudspeaker, ‘Amazing Grace’ played by bagpipes echoed through the canyon as a soundtrack to the mission at hand,” Koerperich said. “The crews and fire captains fought the steep terrain and lovingly passed him out, hand-over-hand, from his resting spot to bring him out of the ravine. Firefighters knew what was at stake. They knew it was dangerous. The fire was coming. But that's what firefighters do."
Rescuers aborted a first attempt after management determined fire conditions were too dangerous. The blaze eventually burned over the area Varney had been trying to clear.
The mood of much of the service was light. Fire service chaplain John Hunter read the story of Varney’s early fascination with heavy machinery, encouraged by his father, Gordie, also a longtime heavy-equipment operator.
“At the young age of four, he operated his first snow plow, that Gordie made him out of a riding lawn mower with a water tank heater chopped in half as a blade, complete with a pulley system to raise and lower the tank,” Hunter said. “Lynn often found Braden putting on his boots and sneaking out of the house to go to work at first light.”
Braden Varney was 36 and a 10 year Cal Fire veteran.
The agency is investigating the incident.