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Finding Purpose and Each Other with CAL FIRE

06/22/2016 04:18PM ● By Gary VanDeWalker

...Into a Burning Ring of Fire

by Gary VanDeWalker
Photo: Taryn Burkleo

The heart for firefighting was an early spark in the home lives of both John and Tiffany Hedlund.  For young John, each day he watched his father embark on an adventure he longed to join.  While John attended school, his dad worked as a firefighter for the city of Salem, Ore.  Three hundred miles to the south, Tiffany joined the Mount Shasta Fire Department Explorer program.  At 12, she determined to follow into the footsteps of her Uncle George, a captain for the Santa Monica Fire Department.  These beginnings would result in a heartfelt flame for not only working for CAL FIRE, but for one another.

The Hedlunds’ dedication is to an organization with more than a century of Californian history. CAL FIRE began 111 years ago, to protect and provide stewardship to more than 31 million acres of privately owned lands in the state. The men and women of the organization respond to 5,600 wildland fires a year and more than 350,000 emergencies.  

The fire academy at College of the Siskiyous in Weed is an entry point to a career in firefighting. John and Tiffany completed academy training a few years apart. John went on to work six seasons as a seasonal firefighter. He was promoted to engineer, then to his current rank as captain. Tiffany also worked through the system to engineer.

“I first met John when I was working at the station in Yreka and he was stationed in Hornbrook. When we’d all get together for events, John was on my radar,” Tiffany says.  “Unfortunately, John never even glanced my way.”

But in 2003, the sparks of romance found their way to John and the two began dating.  “Once you begin a relationship with someone else in CAL FIRE, you don’t get to work together anymore,” John says.  “I was moved from the Hornbrook station.”

The two stayed together despite the work separation.  Tiffany was sent to other parts of the state to work as a helicopter firefighter and John returned to Hornbrook. Each was promoted to engineer at the same time, bringing Tiffany’s work station back to Hornbrook.  Now married, they could not serve at the same place, and for a second time John was removed from Hornbrook.

Many of John and Tiffany’s experiences center around the investment made in people over the years. “I delivered a baby girl at 4am on the side of Highway 97,” Tiffany says.  “You see a lot of horrible situations working this job, but it’s the good outcomes which surround your heart and keep you doing the job.”

“So many times, you never know what happened in a situation you were involved with,” John says. “I helped with a 2-year-old who had been struck by a rock which came through a car windshield. I was in despair for the child, not seeing how anything good could happen now.  Two days later, I received that rare bit of news of what happened. This kid was doing great, playing, and would fully recover.”

Firefighting is a grueling job during the fire season.  John and Tiffany would go for weeks without seeing one another. Their dedication to both CAL FIRE and their marriage was fierce.  Each period of togetherness was cherished. This became more difficult as their first two children were born, but they made it work. “It’s difficult to find long stretches of time as a family,” Tiffany says.  “John has been absent as long as 80 days straight.”

Tiffany was promoted to captain at the same time baby number three arrived. At this point, after 13 years with CAL FIRE, Tiffany left to raise their family and be full-time support for John. CAL FIRE and their family both remain at the core of their passions.

“Our marriage works because we’ve both had the same career,” Tiffany says.  “I understand what John is doing, how important it is, and I know his heart is always set on home.”