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Firefighter who died in El Dorado fire remembered as dedicated family man who loved his job

Anaheim Fire Department firefighters line up under a flag arch as motorcade carrying Charles Morton's body passes Tuesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A U.S. Forest Service firefighter who died battling a wildfire in San Bernardino County earlier this month was remembered Friday as a gregarious and hard-working man who was as devoted to his family and friends as his job.

Nearly 1,000 people tuned in for the live-streamed memorial service for Charles Morton, 39, at 11 a.m. at the Rock Church and World Outreach Center in San Bernardino. The service was streamed on the church’s website and YouTube page, and the San Bernardino National Forest’s Facebook page.

Morton was a 14-year veteran with the U.S. Forest Service who led the Big Bear Interagency Hotshot Squad.

“I speak for the entire United States Forest Service when I say we are deeply shaken for the loss of one of our own,” Vicki Christiansen, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, said at the memorial.

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“At the Forest Service, we are dedicated to caring for the land and serving people,” Christiansen said, “and Charlie showed us what service truly means.”

Morton died Sept. 17 while fighting the El Dorado fire, which has burned more than 22,600 acres in and around the San Bernardino National Forest. The fire was sparked by a pyrotechnic device that was part of a gender-reveal party at El Dorado Ranch Park in Yucaipa. The region was in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave, and flames chewed through the sunbaked grass that covered the hills of the park and quickly spread into the mountainous forest.

Charles Morton died while fighting the El Dorado fire Sept. 17.
Charles Morton, a Big Bear Interagency Hotshot squad boss, died while fighting the El Dorado fire Sept. 17.
(U.S. Forest Service)

Forest Service officials previously said Morton died while engaged in fire suppression operations, though the precise cause and circumstances have yet to be officially released.

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Jimmy Avila, who supervised Morton as former superintendent of the Big Bear Hotshots fire crew, said Morton was a respected firefighter and a beloved friend.

“Charlie and the crew nourished their friendships,” he said, pausing often to hold back emotion. “I witnessed the respect and admiration they had for each other. Handshakes became unacceptable: The saying was, ‘Brothers don’t shake hands, brothers hug.’”

The two-hour memorial service included an honor cordon outside the church, and the posting of the colors — a ceremonial display of the American flag, the California flag and the flag of the U.S. Forest Service. Selective mourners dotted the large hall, wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines.

Family and friends also paid tribute to Morton during Friday’s service.

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“He embraced you, he accepted you as you were, and he found common ground with people,” said his brother, Allen Morton. “I think that’s why people loved him so much.”

Morton’s fiancée, Monica Tapia, said she took comfort in knowing that he died doing what he loved.

“He chose to protect his mountain, he chose to protect his crew, he chose to protect his community, he chose to protect all of us here today,” she said, fighting back tears.

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The ceremony concluded with a reading of the Hotshot Firefighter Prayer, and a final, symbolic radio call to recognize the end of Morton’s watch.

Morton was the 26th person whose death was linked to a California wildfire since August and the third person involved in battling the blazes to die in that span.

Times staff writers Luke Money and Matthew Ormseth contributed to this report.


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