Procession honors Hilo native Brian Hughes who died battling California blaze

  • CAPT. BRIAN HUGHES
  • A National Park Service fire truck passes NPS firefighters from Northern California lining the procession route on Kamehameha Avenue Sunday to pay respects for fallen NPS firefighter Brian Hughes. (JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — Dozens of local and federal firefighters and other emergency responders gathered Sunday on the Hilo Bayfront to pay respect to a fallen brother — Brian Hughes, a Hilo native and captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots based in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Hughes died on the fire line July 29, two days shy of his 34th birthday.

A procession of mostly fire-related vehicles traveled with a police escort from the King Kamehameha statue to the Hilo Yacht Club, where a private memorial service was held.

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“We’re incredibly honored to see the turnout. Emergency responders are a very tight-knit community, and I think this is a testament to that,” said Cindy Orlando, superintendent of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. “Brian certainly was a colleague in the National Park Service (and) worked in one of our sister parks in California in Sequoia. So it’s our honor to be here on his behalf and his family’s.”

Federal firefighters from Northern California brought in to fight the Keauhou Ranch Fire, which as of Sunday had taken almost 3,700 acres, lined a portion of the procession route on Kamehameha Avenue between Bishop Street and Hilo Iron Works.

“We got the containment lines in, and the rain helped out with it, and that allowed the firefighters to come down off the hill and take part in Brian’s procession,” said Jason Schroeder, supervisor of the Folsom Lake Veterans Fire Crew. “There is definitely a fire still up there on the hill, but in the grand scheme of things, showing our respect for Brian is the important thing to do.”

Hughes and his crew were engaged in firefighting operations on the east side of the Ferguson Fire when he was struck by a falling tree. He was treated on scene, but died before he could be taken to a hospital.​​

Born in Hilo on Aug. 1, 1984, Hughes grew up near Akaka Falls and attended Hilo Union, Hilo Intermediate, and Hilo High schools. He enjoyed swimming and surfing, and was most at peace in the ocean. He loved outdoor adventures, and learned to be self-reliant in the wilderness. In high school, he excelled in varsity soccer, track and cross country.

Hughes became a firefighter in 2004 with the Larimer County Yellow Jackets, an emergency fire and rescue unit in Fort Collins, Colo. After two years, he was hired as a seasonal hotshot on the Midnight Suns crew in Alaska. The next year he joined the Roosevelt hotshots, where he worked from 2007-2009. It was there that he met Joe Suarez, who would later recruit Hughes for the Arrowhead crew.

In 2010, Hughes joined the Monterey hand crew in the Los Padres National Forest. After four years with the hand crew, he joined the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska as a specialist.

Hughes moved to Squaw Valley, Calif., in March 2015, as captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots. According to a written Sequoia Parks Conservancy statement, his crew looked up to him and loved him as a brother.

Fighting forest fires is a dangerous business, one that engenders a sense of family among those who do it, Schoeder said.

“I imagine Brian did it for the same reason we do it — just the love of outdoors, the love of working closely with like-minded people, the camaraderie,” he noted. Everything about it is pretty unique, and it’s definitely not for everybody. But it seems the people who do it enjoy it for what it is.”

Hughes is survived by his parents, Peter and Suen Hughes of Hilo, sister, Meriel Hughes, and fiancée, Paige Miller, who’s expecting their child in February 2019.

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A Go Fund Me page for Miller and the couple’s unborn child has so far raised more than $159,000. A link to that page and condolences to Hughes’ family can be found at https://www.sequoiaparksconservancy.org/captainbrianhughes.html.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.