A 32-year-old firefighter from the San Diego area who was battling the Thomas fire died Thursday, a loss that a local Cal Fire official said “has shaken our organization to the core.”
Cal Fire authorities confirmed at news conferences in Ventura, where the fire is burning, and San Diego County that the fallen firefighter was Cory Iverson, who was assigned to the massive blaze with a fire engine strike team from Cal Fire’s San Diego unit.
Iverson, a fire apparatus engineer, had been with Cal Fire since 2009. The North County resident is survived by his wife, Ashley, and a 2-year-old daughter. His wife is pregnant with their second daughter, due in the spring.
Cal Fire San Diego Chief Tony Meacham said at a media briefing in Escondido that the fallen firefighter had been with a five-engine strike team and engaged in a “very active part of the fire” just outside of Fillmore when the accident happened. He did not specify how Iverson was killed.
All 17 of the firefighters on the strike team have been pulled off the fire lines. They had been at the Thomas fire since Dec. 5.
“This incident has shaken our organization to the core,” Meacham said. “It has affected it statewide, but no more than here in San Diego County.”
Meacham said he learned of Iverson’s death this morning when he took “the call that no fire chief ever wants to receive.”
“It just stunningly took my breath away,” Meacham said.
He said he spent the day with Iverson’s family, who he said “just spoke about ‘Why Cory? He’s just such a great guy.’”
Meachem said San Diego Fire-Rescue sent eight fire engines so that Cal Fire firefighters most affected by Iverson’s death could take time to grieve.
Iverson’s uncle is a retired firefighter with Cal Fire and had worked with current Cal Fire San Diego spokesman Jon Heggie at the fire station in Rainbow. It was during that turn that Heggie met Iverson, who was in his late teens at the time and already eager to become a firefighter.
Heggie said he watched Iverson work his way up to becoming a firefighter, and that “you could see the passion that he had at an early age about the fire service.”
“I feel like I had seen him grow up, and I was so proud of him,” Heggie said.
Heggie also called Iverson “the kind of firefighter you could rely on. He was the best fireman you could hope to have on your team.”
Iverson brought a positive attitude, and it was no surprise that he “escalated his way up” in the fire service, Heggie said.
“My heart shattered when I learned what happened to him,” Heggie said of Iverson’s death. “I can only imagine the pain his wife and his family are going through, and all of us in the fire service are feeling it for them.”
During Iverson’s Cal Fire career, he had worked in Tuolumne County in Central California, and also in Riverside County at the Hemet-Ryan Helitack Base before his assignment in Dulzura.
Cal Fire Director Chief Ken Pimlott announced the firefighter’s death in a statement released Thursday afternoon.
“Please join me in keeping our fallen firefighter and his loved ones in your prayers and all the responders on the front lines in your thoughts as they continue to work under extremely challenging conditions,” he said in the written statement.
Speaking in Ventura, Pimlott said an accident review team had been assigned to review the circumstances that led to Iverson’s death.
“Until this review is complete, there is nothing more that I can share,” he said. “What I can say is ‘thank you’ for the outpouring of support for Cory’s family and the Cal Fire family.”
About 4 p.m.Thursday afternoon, Iverson’s body was loaded into a hearse and taken to the Ventura County Medical Examiner, with firefighters lining the road in tribute. There will be a formal procession when the body is brought south to San Diego County, authorities said.
California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement on Iverson’s death, saying “his bravery and years of committed service to the people of California will never be forgotten.”
The governor ordered all Capitol flags to be flown at half-staff.
The Thomas fire has charred 249,500 acres and is the fourth-largest fire in state history. It’s now 35 percent contained, according to the latest Cal Fire update. Officials say they don’t expect to reach full containment until Jan. 7.
The fire has destroyed more than 900 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it began Dec. 4 near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula.
4:05 p.m. This story was updated with new information. It was originally published at 1:05 p.m.
5:11 p.m. This story was updated with new information from the Ventura news conference.
7:02 p.m. This story was updated with new information from the Escondido news conference.
10:00 p.m. This story was updated with additional information from the Escondido news conference.