Chris Herrera described William “Billy” Jaros as “very challenging.”
Jaros was a jokester who liked to get a little rise out of people, but was always quick to help a friend out of a tight spot. Herrera, who met Jaros when they were both in sixth-grade and became close friends with him in high school, said he wasn’t surprised when Jaros joined the U.S. Air Force and later battled wildfires with the Six Rivers National Forest.
“I’ve had him drive from here all the way to San Diego one time to pick me up,” Herrera said following a memorial service for his friend Tuesday. “He had a huge heart. Between the goofy little giggle of his when he knows he’s trying to get you to do something you don’t really want to do, that I miss, but just him being there for you.”
Dozens of uniformed personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, CALFIRE, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Park Service and local agencies lined the sidewalk Tuesday in front of the Del Norte County Fairgrounds and threw a salute when Jaros’ funeral procession drove by.
In addition to U.S. Forest Service vehicles, Jaros’ body and his family were escorted by apparatus belonging to local agencies including Crescent City Fire and Rescue, the Gasquet Fire Department, Smith River Fire, Fort Dick Fire, Cal-Ore Life Flight, Del Norte Ambulance, the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office and the Crescent City Police Department.
During the memorial service, Jaros’ colleagues, superiors and families described the firefighter as “humble and genuine.” He had a passion for aviation and was a versatile asset on hand crews and on fire engines, said Michael Minton, Six Rivers National Forest fire chief.
Minton speculated that Jaros entered his career as a firefighter for the same reasons others would — he felt called to serve his community and had a thirst for action. But, Minton said, it’s the camaraderie of the team that most firefighters, Jaros included, value the most.
“My perception is that he was very fond of the people he worked with and cared about them a great deal,” Minton said. “I have to believe that those would be his reasons for choosing this career and as I stand in this room with you all today I wonder if camaraderie isn’t the most consistent reason why we all choose this career.”
Jaros was born Jan. 20, 1979 and grew up in Del Norte County. He died during a conditioning hike on July 8.
After graduating from Del Norte High School, Jaros enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1998 and served for four years as a security specialist in the law enforcement branch. Jaros deployed three times to the Middle East to assist in NATO operations, providing on-base security and off-base intelligence gathering. He received multiple medals, ribbons and citations during his years with the military.
Upon leaving the Air Force, Jaros attended College of Oceaneering in Wilmington, California where he became a certified underwater welder. But that wasn’t enough.
“He wasn’t satisfied with that and his different job options so he decided to get back into the service and fight fires,” Herrera said.
Jaros became a dive team leader with the Del Norte County Search and Rescue team. In 2005, he began fighting wildfires as a seasonal firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service and has been serving in the Smith River National Recreation Area since 2006. Most recently, Jaros was the fire engine operator on Engine 312 in Gasquet.
According to Dale Middleton, battalion chief in the Smith River National Recreation Area who worked with Jaros for 10 years, Engine 312, a team of seven people, battle wildfires throughout the West as well as back east.
Jaros started his career on the Six Rivers National Forest as an apprentice firefighter. He also worked with a hand crew before he began working on engines and worked for a year on the helicopter crew from Happy Camp, Middleton said.
“He liked helping people,” Middleton said. “Bill actually carried a bag of Smokey Bear stuff for kids. If he came across some kids at the campgrounds, he would give them Smokey Bear stuff. That was kind of the way he was.”
Even though he didn’t know Jaros well, Michael Green, acting supervisor for the Six Rivers National Forest, said Jaros took pride in protecting and serving the people in his community. He also noted that Jaros’ death will have an impact on his crewmates.
“As an organization we do very well about fighting fires, but when it comes down to emotions and losses it’s a challenge,” Green said. “We try to be resilient as we can and I see the crew and the members in the (forest service), they do their best to come to grips with it knowing they have a mission to protect others and serve the public.”
Green and Middleton commended the crew of Engine 312, who were with Jaros when he collapsed on July 8.
“I understand they all did very well reacting to the tragedy as it unfolded,” Green said. “I’m so proud of them for being able to find it within themselves to carry on. Of course it was one of their own. I feel they would have done that for any one of their fellow firefighters.”
During the memorial service, Six Rivers National Forest Fire Capt. Joe Eneim, presented a firefighter statue to Jaros’ parents. Curtis Stanley, of the U.S. Forest Service’s Honor Guard led the bell ceremony.
The service concluded with a final radio call from Fortuna dispatch to Jaros.
“We would like to thank you for your dedicated service and your continuous sacrifices made for the community,” the dispatcher said. “Fortuna Dispatch acknowledges fallen firefighter Billy Jaros is out of service. Godspeed and farewell.”