'Charlie's Meadow' dedicated to fallen hotshot

A memorial near California's Camp Tahquitz honors Charlie Morton, the 39-year-old crew boss who died during the 2020 El Dorado Fire


Quinn Wilson
San Bernardino County Sun, Calif.

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — An azure sky loomed over the now-golden meadow at the Boy Scouts' Camp Tahquitz. Mid-morning sunshine cascaded through the shimmering pines towering above, with fall-flecked mountainsides gazing down from the south.

Charlie Morton, the hotshot firefighter who perished battling the 2020 El Dorado fire near the campground, often referred to the ridgelines overlooking the meadow as "his mountains," said Monica Tapia of Irvine, Morton's fiancée. Whenever a fire would threaten the one-square-mile area, Morton would say "I've got to go protect my mountains," she recalled.

On Thursday, Nov. 18, a memorial to Morton was dedicated at the base of the meadow with a bronze plaque placed upon a large boulder. Additionally, the meadow's namesake was officially changed from "Upper Meadow" to "Charlie's Meadow."

"I guess it's fitting," Tapia said with pride and a smile.

The 39-year-old crew boss with the Big Bear Hotshot firefighters was a native of San Diego, but claimed Oceanside as his home, Tapia said. After 13 years working as a hotshot firefighter, Morton's life of service came to a close on Sept. 17, 2020, when he was overtaken by flames while defending a fire containment line within an eighth-of-a-mile of Camp Tahquitz.

Morton's death was the first firefighting-related fatality near Camp Tahquitz in nearly 100 years, said Paul Muehlebach, historian with the Boy Scouts' Long Beach Area Council.

At the dedication, a group of Morton's loved ones and colleagues gathered to remember him. Eight members of the Big Bear Hotshots were in attendance along with members of the San Bernardino County Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the Boy Scouts.

San Bernardino National Forest firefighter David Cruz lowers his head during a memorial for Charles Morton, the U.S. Forest Service firefighter assigned to the Big Bear Hotshots who was killed in the line of duty on the El Dorado Fire at The Rock Church in San Bernardino, Calif.
San Bernardino National Forest firefighter David Cruz lowers his head during a memorial for Charles Morton, the U.S. Forest Service firefighter assigned to the Big Bear Hotshots who was killed in the line of duty on the El Dorado Fire at The Rock Church in San Bernardino, Calif. (Photo/Terry Pierson/The Orange County Register via AP, Fire)

Representatives from each organization spoke about Morton and the camp's significance to the group. In the background, a green USFS fire engine and a red County Fire Department engine lined the edge of Charlie's Meadow.

"(Morton) was proud of his public service and he was proud of protecting this country's natural resources," said Mike Rohde, a former scoutmaster and retired fire chief who volunteered on the memorial project. "He knew this job to be as dangerous as it was important."

That day in 2020, bad fire-weather conditions enabled the El Dorado fire to overcome the southern ridgeline that Morton called his own, said Zachary Resnick, a crew boss with the Big Bear Hotshots who worked with Morton. The hotshots had to conduct a "burning operation" in which firefighters use drip torches to create their own controlled fire, to create a fire line to prevent the blaze from crossing Highway 38 to the north and into the Big Bear Mountains, Resnick said.

"The plan worked and they stopped that fire," Resnick said. "Charles' sacrifice was unfortunately part of that.

"He passed away doing his job."

The El Dorado fire allegedly was sparked by a pyrotechnic device used to generate smoke during a gender-reveal on Sept. 5 at El Dorado Ranch Park. The couple at the center of the gender reveal, Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr., 42, and Angelina Renee Jimenez, 29, were charged in July with involuntary manslaughter, three felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, four felony counts of recklessly causing a fire to inhabited structures and 22 misdemeanor counts of recklessly causing a fire to property of another.

The couple has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

Charlie's Meadow is also the site where mandatory fire drills for scouts take place during each summer camp session, said Muehlebach. Morton's legacy will now be required learning for all of the scouts, Muehlebach said.

"He means a lot to us and he's a part of our lore now," Muehlebach said.

Todd Richard, a volunteer firefighter with the County Fire Department's Angelus Oaks station, volunteered his time to fashion a bench for the memorial site. The bench was crafted in five days out of a 290-year-old oak tree trunk that weighed 8,000 pounds, Richard said, who professionally mills with his company Mountain Home Forest Management.

"We just wanted there to be something comfortable to sit on and contemplate," Richard said.

USFS firefighters can also now request future access to Charlie's Meadow through the Camp Tahquitz Ranger. This aspect is vital to the hotshot firefighting community, according to Resnick, who described the bunch as a "quiet group of hard workers."

"We're not used to the limelight, so when something like this happens, all we can do is learn from it," Resnick said. "We have to remember him. We have to bring people out to remember what happened that day so that his death is not in vain."

A hotshot firefighter's job is essentially to make sure the area is safe for other firefighters who have to stick around and watch the fire line, Resnick explained. Hotshots do not get to turn around and walk away, the crew boss said.

"I can't think of a better way for him to be honored than having his plaque right there in a meadow right next to the fire that he will always be remembered for helping put out," Resnick said.

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(c)2021 the San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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