FRESNO, Calif. >> Hundreds of colleagues, family and friends attended a memorial service Saturday in Fresno, Calif., for an elite firefighter from Hawaii who died in one of the state’s 17 major wildfires still burning.
A 50-vehicle procession accompanying the body of Brian Hughes drove through the town before the memorial service at the Fresno Convention Center. Hughes, who was born and grew up in Hilo, lived in nearby Squaw Valley with his fiancee Paige Miller, who is due to give birth to their first child in February.
The 33-year-old was killed by a falling tree July 29 while battling the Ferguson wildfire that prompted the closure and evacuation of nearby Yosemite National Park.
Hughes was a National Park Service fire captain and the leader of an elite “hotshot” crew responsible for fighting fires in rugged terrain.
Born Aug. 1, 1984, Hughes attended Hilo Union, Hilo Intermediate School and Hilo High School, where he participated in varsity soccer, track and cross-country. An outdoorsman, Hughes also enjoyed swimming, surfing, snowboarding and biking.
>> Hawaii family, friends and supporters can pay tribute to Brian Hughes during a Hilo memorial procession starting at 11 a.m. Aug. 12 at the Central Fire Station. A gathering for close friends and family will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Hilo Yacht Club.
>> In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation or the official Arrowhead Hotshots gofundme.com page for his fiancee and their child. As of Saturday, nearly $127,000 had been donated.
His family said he always wanted to become a firefighter. Hughes started his career with the Larimer County Yellow Jackets, an emergency fire and rescue unit in Fort Collins, Colo. After two years, he was hired as a seasonal hotshot in Alaska in 2006 and then joined the U.S. Forest Service’s Roosevelt Hotshots in Fort Collins, where he worked from 2007 to 2009.
Hughes later joined crews at Los Padres National Forest and in Alaska before moving to Squaw Valley in 2015. He had been with the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots for four years.
“He was always looking to gain as much knowledge as he could; he was always asking questions,” Justin Whitesell, emergency operations director for the Larimer County Yellow Jackets, told the Sierra Star newspaper.
His family said Hughes was an engaging person who put others first and loved the camaraderie of his firefighting teams.
In her eulogy Saturday, Hughes’ older sister, Meriel Hughes, shared memories of their Big Island childhood that included catching sand crabs on the beach at night and camping out in a backyard treehouse.
She said his sense of fun was evident in his regular morning surfing sessions with a friend, when the two would compete to see who could paddle out the farthest before getting their hair wet, and when Hughes would pack snow from Mauna Kea into the back of a pickup truck for snowball fights during soccer practice.
Many would be surprised to learn that as a child, he took a variety of dance classes at his mother Suen Hughes’ studio in Hilo, Island Dance Academy.
“He had a great sense of rhythm and even invented some moves no one had seen before,” said Meriel Hughes, 37, who lives in Sacramento, Calif.
Her brother was also “a maniac” when it came to his outdoor adventures, she said, hiking into Halape in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and covering 22 miles in a single day — a trek most people tackle over the course of several days.
Brian Hughes is also survived by his father, Peter Hughes of Hilo.