Texas FF-EMT killed fighting Calif. wildfires had 'heart of service,' friends, family say
Cresson Firefighter-EMT Diana Jones, 63, was inspired by her son, a fire captain, to pursue a second career in public safety
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
CRESSON, Texas — At the age of 58, Diana Jones, a hairdresser, decided to take up a second career as a firefighter and EMT.
She was inspired by her son, Ian Shelly, a captain with the Cresson Volunteer Fire Department, according to Chief Ron Becker. About five years ago, he said, the mother and grandmother went through the rigorous training required of all new members, participating with everyone in weekly exercises until she met — and in fact far exceeded — their standards. She took the extra step of going through a roughly four-month course to become a certified EMT.
Jones, who had shiny gray hair and a calm demeanor, possessed a “servant’s heart” that drove her to want to help others whenever possible, Becker said. For the past two or three years, sensing a greater need outside of Texas, she joined her son when he took occasional trips to western states to help fight wildfires.
“We just knew she’d be back,” Becker said of these trips. “What we’re having to deal with in our gut is she’s not going to be back. And that’s not the way we think of Diana.”
The 63-year-old went to Arizona and then Oregon with Shelly earlier in the summer to fight wildfires, and was back in Cresson by June, Becker said. But a few weeks ago, he said, she and her son went to California with a group of other Cresson firefighters as several lightning fires ravaged the state.
Jones was fighting the August Complex fire northwest of Sacramento on Monday when she died, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Officials from the agency said in a news release Tuesday she and two other firefighters were involved in a “vehicle accident,” though they didn’t announce details of the crash. Becker only knows, through those who have spoken to Shelly, there was some type of sudden and unexpected incident.
Over the past 48 hours, he and her friends at the fire department have had to try to come to terms with her death. Jones grew into the compassionate leader on their team, he said, and it still feels as if she should come back.
“When she chose to retire a little bit from the hairdressing business and moved here to the Cresson area ... she became a pretty proficient firefighter,” Becker told the Star-Telegram over the phone Wednesday. “She took to it. She discovered that it was a way for her to contribute to people, to help people.”
The California Highway Patrol is leading the investigation into the accident that occurred within the Mendocino National Forest, the Forest Service said in the release. One other firefighter suffered burns to a hand and arm in the accident, and the third firefighter wasn’t injured, officials said.
The news of Jones’ death resulted in an outpouring of support on social media, with people from Texas, California and elsewhere expressing gratitude to a woman they had never met. Underneath a Facebook post from the volunteer fire department announcing her death, people thanked her for her service and called her a hero.
As her fellow firefighters and her family await more details of what happened, they want to share some of what made her deserving of that title.
Jones, though born in Oklahoma, grew up in Houston where she attended James Madison High School, according to her cousin, Dayna Chapman, of Houston. She eventually settled down in North Richland Hills, and had two sons and two stepsons, Chapman said. She later became a grandmother to nine and a great-grandmother to one.
She started fighting wildfires in the summers to be with her son, Chapman said. “And she loved it so much she had to keep going back.”
“She had a heart of service,” Chapman said of her cousin over Facebook. “She loved with all her heart, all of her family and extended family. Once you met her, she cared for you like family.”
After Jones relocated to Cresson about five years ago to become a firefighter, Becker said, her caring spirit led her to develop close relationships with those she served with.
A volunteer fire department is akin to “a bunch of misfits,” with different people of all ages and backgrounds, who are going through their own specific challenges, Becker said. The agency has a dedicated chaplain for this reason, so people can seek counsel if they want it, he said.
But often people would turn to Jones, who had lost her own husband and was an empathetic listener.
“She had walked some paths that not everyone has walked that’s on a fire department and was able to minister to our folks that way,” Becker said.
A helper, in every situation
Becker thinks Jones became interested in firefighting because of her son, but that joining the force was a decision she made for herself.
“I think she looked at what her son was doing, and at that time one of her stepsons was on the department. I think she saw the difference they were making in people’s lives,” he said. “While that probably gave her an insight as to what volunteer firefighting is like, I think what drove her to it was saying, ‘I can see that there’s a niche here that I can fill.’”
That niche, he said, was of the helper, whether she was fighting a blaze alongside her peers or — in their down time — actually being the one to serve them.
When the fire department acquired a former Church of Christ chapel to use for meetings, she took on the project as if it were her own, Becker said. She repainted the interior, waxed the hardwood floors, renovated the kitchen, he said. After every meeting, people would put their chairs on top of the tables so she could wax the floor again.
At one dinner, hosted by the Granbury Church of Christ, Becker said, she was supposed to go through the food line to pick out her vegetables, main course and dessert. But she wound up on the other side, serving people.
“It’s a trite little story but it gives a little insight into her character. Rather than be served, she said, ‘Let me serve you guys,’” he said. “That was her. That’s the way she was.”
He believes she wanted to help fight wildfires out west because she knew that’s where the need was.
She had posted a photo on Facebook on Sunday of the long and hilly terrain where she was battling fires, white smoke visible in the trees. Becker also said he received pictures from a woman in California a few days earlier, showing Jones and other firefighters sitting down for a meal.
Her death has come as a shock to the fire department, one that will take time to recover from, he said. But they’ll move forward remembering her legacy.
“Somebody who at that stage of life decides that they’re gonna almost take on a little bit of a different career, become a volunteer firefighter, become a volunteer EMT and start trying to help people — lots of people don’t do that,” Becker said. “And she did it.”
Chapman, Jones’ cousin, said they don’t yet know when or where her funeral services will be.
The fire department wrote on Facebook that anyone who wants to help the family can send a donation to Cresson Volunteer Fire Department, P.O. Box 42, Cresson, Texas, 76035. “We promise you, every dime will go directly to them,” the post reads.
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