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Somber procession escorts tree faller through Sisters

By Kim Tobin
Barney Lerten
John Hendricks
Published On: Aug 01 2013 09:29:55 PM CDT
Updated On: Aug 02 2013 07:57:24 PM CDT
Hammack procession Pat Dooris KGW

Pat Dooris/KGW.COM

Procession lines up for escort through Sisters Friday of body of John Hammack, contract tree faller killed on forest fire west of Sisters

SISTERS, Ore. -

A somber procession rolled through Sisters Friday afternoon, as first responders escorted the body of a Madras tree faller killed by a fallen treetop Thursday while helping firefighters on a blaze west of Redmond.

Deschutes County sheriff's deputies had helped recover the body of John Hammack, 58, from the fire scene Friday after it was finally deemed safe to do so, about 24 hours after the tragic accident.

Families, police and both wildland and structural fire agencies from throughout the area took part in the procession, which slowly moved from a forest road intersection east on Hwy. 242 (the McKenzie Pass Highway), then along Highway 20, the western-style main street of downtown Sisters -- the small Western-style town where Hammack grew up and as a pro rodeo cowboy won several Sisters Rodeo all-around titles.

It then headed to Redmond Memorial Gardens funeral home.

Hammack died and his colleague, Norman Crawford, 45, of Sisters, was injured Thursday when the top of a burning "hazard tree" broke off and fell on them as they helped a crew battling a small, new forest fire about seven miles west of Sisters.

The two men were working under contract for R&K Water Services of Bonney Lake, Washington.

Deschutes County said Friday flags at all of its buildings will be lowered to half-staff for 48 hours in honor of Hammack. The county said it also had been authorized by the governor's office to order that all flags in the county be lowered and flown at half-staff until sundown on Sunday.

"Even though it's government and private contractors, it's still one big fire family," Deschutes National Forest Supervisor John Allen said Thursday.

Thursday afternoon, friends shared with NewsChannel 21 their fond memories of the man.

"The guy was tough -- I mean, I was really surprised he had a logging accident. It wasn't his first time doing that," said family friend Rick Geraths of Tollgate.

Geraths said Hammack not only loved being in the woods, but loved the rodeo life.

"He was big in the rodeo for a long time," Garaths said. "He was the guy who pulled on the gate for the bulls."

Hammack also was a star of the Sisters Rodeo, winning the all-around title many times. Family members told NewsChannel 21 Hammack also competed in the International Professional Rodeo Association, where he rode in Madison Square Garden and won the world championship.

Deschutes County sheriff's Lt. Chad Davis said they were called in to help rescue the two contract workers who "were attempting to fall a hazard tree within the boundary of an active fire, when the top of the tree broke and fell on them," near Dugout Lake in the Mt. Washington Wilderness Area, seven miles west of Sisters.

"One of the workers was struck by the tree and killed," Davis said in a news release Thursday evening. "The other worker was struck by falling tree limbs."

Nearly 1,900 lightning strikes hit Central Oregon Wednesday and early Thursday, sparking more than 50 fires near Sisters. The contractors were called in to help on one small fire, burning about a quarter-acre.

The injured worker was able to notify Forest Service employees of the incident, who in turn called 911 dispatchers, Davis said. Crawford was taken by Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire Department medics and transferred to an AirLink helicopter, which flew him to St. Charles-Bend. He was treated and released, officials said.

Deputies and sheriff's search and rescue personnel were unable to enter the active fire scene, and it remained risky enough that crews were unable to recover Hammack's remains, which they now plan to do on Friday afternoon, after crews control the fire.

"The tree that fell down that was on top of the gentleman was on fire, and was very hot," Allen said. "That was one of the contributory reasons that firefighters really couldn't get in there to reach him. He was unconscious when they found him."

The accident occurred about one-third of a mile from a steep forest road.

The death is a major shock for the firefighter community, which strives for safety in very dangerous conditions.

"You know, I can't remember the last time that a firefighter died here in Central Oregon," Allen said, despite the fact that "it's very dangerous work."

Gov. John Kitzhaber released the following statement on the passing of Hammack:

"My thoughts and deepest condolences go out to the family of John Hammack, who died on Thursday while bravely responding to a wildfire outside of Sisters. All across Oregon, thousands of men and women are doing difficult and dangerous work to protect their fellow citizens. This is a tough loss for Oregon, and with our state experiencing the most severe wildfire conditions in years, all first responders deserve our gratitude, our appreciation, and our support."

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