Color guard officers for the Bureau of Land Management honor Brett Stearns, a captain with the Northwest Colorado Interagency Fire Management Unit, during Stearns' funeral Wednesday at Craig Cemetery. Gov. Bill Ritter ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff Wednesday in Stearns' memory.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Color guard officers for the Bureau of Land Management honor Brett Stearns, a captain with the Northwest Colorado Interagency Fire Management Unit, during Stearns' funeral Wednesday at Craig Cemetery. Gov. Bill Ritter ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff Wednesday in Stearns' memory.

Fallen firefighter honored by family, community

To contribute

Those who wish to donate to memorial funds for Brett Stearns and his family can contribute to the following:

• Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a national nonprofit that helps families of fallen firefighters, through its Web site at www.wffoundation.org, or through Grant Mortuary at 824-6133.

• Brett Stearns Memorial Scholarship Fund at Colorado Northwestern Community College, through Grant Mortuary.

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About 600 people gathered for church and burial services Wednesday. Bureau of Land Management Smokejumpers and local resident Blaine Tucker also participated with a fly-over at Craig Cemetery.

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Two color guard officers for the Bureau of Land Management fold an American flag that was placed on Brett Stearns' casket, before they presented it to his family.

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Today, the Bureau of Land Management and Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit will recognize the three-year anniversary of fallen firefighter Brett Stearns dying in the line of duty.

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A Bureau of Land Management color guard officer stands at attention Wednesday during Brett Stearns' funeral at Craig Cemetery.

— A crowd of 600 to 700 people gathered around a small burial site Wednesday afternoon at Craig Cemetery, while the guttural sound of bagpipes and the wailing of sirens in mourning rang out.

Minutes later, a procession of hundreds of firefighters from across the region filed into the cemetery, all donning their units' colors.

Men and women, many teary-eyed but standing straight and proud, gathered to honor their fallen comrade, who died Friday while working with 12 of his colleagues to remove a hazardous tree near Freeman Reservoir.

Officially, Brett Stearns, who was 29, was a captain with the Northwest Colorado Interagency Fire Management Unit. He was stationed in the Bureau of Land Management Little Snake Field Office in Craig.

But outside of his formal title, Stearns was much more.

That was demonstrated by the enormous outpouring of support from residents and fellow firefighters - several of whom did not know the man but who had heard of his reputation - and by the words of those closest to him.

Before the service at the cemetery, people gathered at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1295 W. Ninth St., to hear Stearns' family and friends speak.

One after the other, each speaker told the crowd about Stearns' ability to surprise them, constantly and without trying, because of his near obsession with doing his best.

"For Brett, 'good was not enough," said Cliff Hutton, BLM Colorado State Office fire operations specialist. "He was always striving to be better, and this was in all aspects of his life. He walked the talk, and he set expectations of himself higher than that of others, because that was Brett.

"He chose this profession because he wanted to make a difference and help people, and that he did. Brett was more than a firefighter. He was a leader and a friend."

Hutton was there when Brett first started with the fire unit in 2000, a chance for him to make good on a childhood fantasy.

"My gut told me he had potential," an emotional Hutton said while struggling through his delivery, "and that he could be a future leader for kids such as himself."

Which Brett, of course, did become, Hutton added.

"Because that was Brett," he said. "Remembering his dedication, determination and zest for life will make me a better person."

Stearns' aunt, Mary Karen Solomon, ended her formal eulogy with similar reflections on her time with Stearns.

At the same time he was rising in the ranks of the BLM fire program, Stearns took nearly every college course offered at Colorado Northwestern Community College.

Solomon was his professor, and she eventually introduced him to her niece, Joy, who later became Stearns' wife.

"He was a wonderful student," Solomon said. "He was good at everything, and he loved to learn."

It always seemed that he made sure his life was full in all aspects, she added, from his duties at work, his studies at CNCC and his love with Joy.

"He knew that there were always risks to life," Solomon said. "I didn't need to teach Brett that, because he knew it. Brett shows that in his life. He understood that we can't truly live without facing death and overcoming it."

And just as Christ will win the battle with death, she said, Stearns' departure from this earth is a "temporary separation from his family and Joy."

His family is more than the obvious, said Lynn Barclay, mitigation/education specialist and fire public information officer for the BLM.

"The outpouring that's coming in throughout the fire community across the country is pretty amazing," she said. "Flags are flying at half-mast all the way to Virginia. We're a pretty tight community. We're a family, and he's our brother."

Members of several federal agency fire departments and local fire departments from across the state and the West, as well as top-ranking federal agency officials, attended the services, including Craig Fire/Rescue and Moffat County Sheriff's Office wildland fire team.

A BLM Smokejumpers unit, along with local resident Blaine Tucker, also flew planes over the cemetery services.

There were so many firefighters, Barclay said she didn't who they all were or where they came from, but that's common when one of their own passes away.

Other firefighters across the nation volunteered to handle emergency calls so that those who knew him and those who wanted to pay their respects could have time, she added.

"Brett was also an exceptional individual and well-known in the fire community," she added. "But regardless of if you personally knew him or if you only know of him, this is important. We've lost a leader for us locally and nationally."

But if Bishop Joe Ence tried to communicate one thing during the chapel service that morning at the Mormon Church, it was that Stearns is not lost.

He is, Ence said, for now, only out of reach.

"I think after the initial shock, because it was so unexpected, I had a lot of people ask questions, and it seemed to be, 'Why?'" Ence said.

Why, when Stearns was happy?

Why, when he was a good person?

Why, when he was so young, would he die four days before his 30th birthday?

"I don't know all the answers to these questions," Ence said. "I do know that God loves, that he lives and he answers prayers. I do know God has a plan.

"We enter this world through a process called birth. When we leave this existence, it's called death. We don't talk about it much. I don't know, because it's scary."

According to Mormon beliefs, when people die, they leave their earthly possessions behind, but they take themselves, Ence told the assembly.

When others pass on, he said they can see the people who died before them.

"He'll be there," Ence said. "He'll know us. He's only ahead of us. That is all."

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