El Dorado Fire Claims Life Of Big Bear Hotshot Squad Commander Charles Morton

Charles Morton, 39, the leader of the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squad, was killed September 17 while battling the El Dorado Fire, which from its inception on September 5 has ranged over 22,588 acres in the foothills and mountains above Yuciapa.
At the time of his death, Morton was working with his crew near Pinezanita, which is northeast of Angelus Oaks, at a spot along the periphery of where the central portion of the fire had migrated.
Charles MortonSo-called hotshot crews have been in existence since the 1940s in California, where they were first used in the Cleveland and Angeles National Forests. They are highly mobile and specially skilled hand crews intended to be flexible with the migration of a fire, and are trained, conditioned, equipped and qualified to be utilized in combating wildland fires. Hotshots are often employed in using shovels and other tools in seeking to reroute the direction of a fire’s progression, often on very difficult terrain at locations remote from the main body of firefighters in a given area. In many of those cases, hotshot crews function without water or hoses. Morton was particularly accomplished and proud of his firefighting capability under such demanding conditions.
The U.S. Forest Service has been less than fully forthcoming in providing details with regard to Morton’s death, which occurred, an analysis of available information unearthed by the Sentinel, at sometime around 10 p.m. in the evening of September 17. There was word that a firefighter had died in the line of duty over the weekend of September 19 and 20, but no identity of the fallen fire line employee was provided at that time. Morton was identified in a statement put out by the San Bernardino National Forest’s office of administration on Monday night, September 21. The Forest Service statement said that Morton had died while “engaged in fire suppression operations” late Thursday.
Accompanying that statement was a quote from U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. “Charlie was a well-respected leader who was always there for his squad and his crew at the toughest times,” Christiansen said. “Our hearts go out to Charlie’s loved ones, coworkers, friends and the Big Bear Hotshots. We will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
The Sentinel has obtained the firefighter fatality notice put out by the Forest Service in reference to Morton. According to that document, death overcame Morton as he was in an “advance hose lines/fire attack” on “September 17, 2020 22:00.”
Of the modicum of biographical detail relating to Morton that the Sentinel has been able to assemble, he comes across as a rugged individual who rushed to meet the challenges of life, doing so in an environment that makes the path he cut all the more impressive because of its proximity to death.
Morton was born on August 7, 1981, in San Diego. He graduated from Ocean Shores High in Oceanside in 1998. At the age of 21, he committed to a career in firefighting, eschewing the staid assignments of a firehouse in an urban environment for the more intensive and challenging work of combating wildland fires.
His first primary job in the field was as a corpsman with the California Conservation Corps at the Butte Fire Center in Magalia in 2002. A notable experience he had relatively early in his career was that of the firestorms that beset Chico during the 2006 fire season. That same year, his 4-year Forest Service career began when he became a member of the Truckee Interagency Hotshots on the Tahoe National Forest. Morton then moved south to join the San Bernardino National Forest in 2007. He worked on both the Front Country and Mountaintop Ranger Districts, for the Mill Creek Interagency Hotshots, Engine 31, Engine 19, and the Big Bear Interagency Hotshots.
It was with the Big Bear Interagency Hotshots that be acceded to the position of a crew leader, burnishing his reputation as an intrepid lion among a den of paladins unwilling to give in to fear.
Tributes were paid to him earlier today, September 25, at the Rock Church in San Bernardino where a memorial service was held in his honor. Following the posting of colors, an agency dispatcher initiated a “last call” to Morton, imploring him to report to duty. When he did not respond, a second call was made. Morton’s second silence was then received as a recognition that his end of watch has been reached. Thereafter followed the Hotshot Prayer and a knelling of bells.
Most of the last month of Morton’s abbreviated life was spent on continuous duty. Prior to taking on the task of battling the El Dorado Fire, Morton had been leading the Big Bear Hotshot team in the effort to arrest the Apple Fire that had begun south of Oak Glen and migrated toward Beaumont, Banning and Cherry Valley in Riverside County.
The El Dorado conflagration began at 10:23 am on September 5, 2020, in the El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa, when an as-yet-unidentified couple held a gender reveal party which featured a smoke generating pyrotechnic device, intended to emit blue or pink smoke. The device sparked the fire, which thereafter raged out of control.
Toni Atkins, president pro tempore of the California Senate said, “San Diego, and the state, lost a true hero last week.”
The U.S. Hotshots Association’s tribute to Morton told him to “Rest easy brother. May the wind be at your back.”

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