Signs honor fallen firefighter
October 18, 2017
Sometimes tragedy can lead to change.
To some degree, the parents of fallen firefighter Michael "Mikey" Hallenbeck hope that their son's death two years ago can reinforce the importance of proper forest management.
Speaking at an event unveiling new signs marking U.S. 50 near Echo Summit as "Firefighter Michael 'Mikey' Hallenbeck Memorial Highway," Kirby Hallenbeck suggested that state Sen. Ted Gaines could try to "get some action" on clearing more of the many dead trees in California.
Mikey, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit who also worked at Sierra-at-Tahoe, was killed Aug. 8, 2015, after a dead tree fell on him while fighting a fire near Echo Summit. He was 21 years old.
"We need to treat our forest like a living ecosystem that needs to be maintained and not neglected," Kirby, Mikey's father, said Saturday speaking on the side of U.S. 50 with his wife Toni by his side.
Though the sentence was only a brief part of the Hallenbecks' remarks, it was not lost on Gaines, a father of six who appeared to fight back tears at times.
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"We have a tinder box around Lake Tahoe and efforts have been made and I applaud those efforts, but we can never rest and we need to continue to charge forward in thinning that forest," Gaines, a second-term senator whose district includes El Dorado County, told the Tribune after the ceremony.
Prior to winning a seat in the California Senate, Gaines was a California assemblyman representing the district that includes South Lake Tahoe. He was in office in 2007 when the Angora Fire destroyed more than 250 homes. The blaze, often referred to as the most destructive fire in the Tahoe Basin's recorded history, reinforced the importance of fuel reduction.
Since the fire, Gaines has received annual updates on fuel reduction progress.
"It reminds me to continue to be vigilant and find out again … how much progress we've made and how much more work remains, and do we have adequate funding to get the job done," Gaines said.
That commitment to "get the job done" was very much a part of Mikey's DNA, said Jeff Marsolais, forest supervisor for LTBMU. Speaking to the small crowd gathered Saturday, Marsolais recounted how once Mikey got going you had to tell him to stop — he would not quit.
After the ceremony, Marsolais told the Tribune that Mikey's persistence and perseverance are characteristics embodied by firefighters.
"Our firefighters believe very dearly in the public service that they're providing and they know what it takes to create that safe place for the public to be," Marsolais said. "Firefighters run toward the emergency when everyone else runs away. And Mikey was no different. He truly was dedicated to this, and he didn't have the years of service like others, but we knew he was a firefighter through and through."
Mikey's legacy lives on both through the signs, which were made possible thanks to $10,000 in donations collected by Tahoe Fund, and in the many friends Kirby said were inspired to become firefighters after Mikey's death.
The Hallenbecks hope the public will recognize those elements of firefighting — bravery, dedication and danger — when they drive past the sign with their son's name on it.
"Fearless," said Toni when asked what she remembers most about her son. "He would do anything. … He was never afraid and I know walking into that fire he was not afraid. He was proud."