Two water tender operators on the Dixie Fire died of COVID-19

Jose T. Calderon and Cessar Saenz, both of San Diego County

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Jose T. Calderon
Jose T. Calderon

Two water tender operators have died of COVID-19 this month. They both worked for Brenda’s Fire Water based in Ramona, California. Two trucks with three drivers were dispatched from the company to the Dixie Fire in Northern California. They worked shifts to keep the water tenders working on the fire as much as possible.

Jose T. Calderon of Chula Vista California had spent much of his adult life driving virtually all types of trucks. He was the first of the two to die. On August 11 after 14 days of employment with the company and testing positive for COVID, he was taken from the west zone of the Dixie Fire to a hospital in Redding. He spent three weeks on a ventilator before passing away there September 5.

A family member told Wildfire Today that Jose’s death certificate listed the cause of death as respiratory failure, COVID-19, and smoke inhalation.

After Jose went to the hospital, his co-worker Cessar Saenz of El Cajon, California tested positive for COVID at the Dixie Fire and went home. When his symptoms worsened he was admitted to Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, California. About three or four weeks later he died on September 14. He had just turned 63 two weeks earlier.

Cessar Saenz
Cessar Saenz. Posted on his Facebook page Feb. 13, 2021.

On July 25 he changed his employment status on Facebook to “Started New Job at Happily Retired” and was planning on moving to Texas.

Cessar drove water tenders on fires off and on since 2001. John Clark thought of Cessar not just as a good friend, but like a brother. He said Cessar liked to ride his motorcycle, fish, and camp. Cessar had been a truck and charter bus driver for decades and for eight years drove a mobile clinic out of Alpine, California to seven Tribal Reservations for the Southern Indian Health Council. He also taught people how to drive school busses.

Brenda Dahl of Brenda’s Fire Water confirmed the deaths of Jose and Cessar, but declined to provide any additional information. Neither the US Forest Service or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responded to multiple inquiries about these line of duty deaths. As far as we know there has been no official announcement from a fire agency about the passing of these two firefighters. The water tenders were under a call when needed contract with one of the two agencies.

Our sincere condolences go out to the families, friends, and co-workers of Jose and Cessar.

Before COVID, the line of duty deaths of contractors on wildfires was always announced and their service was honored even though they are not regular government employees. It is not clear why the FS and CAL FIRE now feel the need to cover up fatalities on fires. I can remember when reports were written and lessons were learned from serious accidents and fatalities in the line duty. Is the problem that there are now too many to document and they are offloading that duty to journalists?

Putting your head in the sand is rarely a successful strategy.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

26 thoughts on “Two water tender operators on the Dixie Fire died of COVID-19”

  1. I would like to know the vaccination status of the men who died. In fact, I would like to know it for all dispatched by or for the Forest Service in firefighting roles and if they are not vaccinated, why not?

  2. The announcement of these two fatalities just came out hours ago. In honor of these two men why don’t we wait a few days before we start arguing about vaccinations.

  3. I agree with Bill. My spouse has been working on fires this summer, he’s found as we all have here reported previously by Bill, there is the same resistance to a Covid vaccination with regard to employment, as within the general populace by comments to the article Bill posted this summer. I wish it was different. I do not, at all, suggest Jose or Cessar are within that unvaccinated group. My condolences go out to their families. It’s a very sad day for all of us when any member of our community dies no matter how.

  4. It’s none of your business what the vaccination status is of other people!
    You should worry about your health care decisions and nobody else’s!

  5. …and yet you want the agencies to release all of their information about a rapidly changing situation that doesn’t fall into the standard situation of a line of duty fatality. There are some really fine lines involved here with release of medical information that agencies may not have the authority to do so. RIP to those affected.

  6. as a water tender operator, i feel a loss of our brothers and sisters who pass away while fighting on/off fires. sorry for the loss. i probably sprayed water along the way in my yrs as an operator. rest in peace. 38 yrs fighting fires lost alot of great friends.

  7. I wonder how many firefighters died from camp crud or the flu prior to Covid? I’ll bet there were some. Secondly, 23% of Covid “related” deaths in Oregon in August were people who were fully vaccinated. Food for thought.

  8. Whereas arguments are bound to ensue about any and everything, and your reminder is certainly in order, I’d kinda’ like to know for my own think-tank. I’ve lost a few friends and relatives to this virus, with and without co-morbidities. My mama said I was born to be hung, so I’ve no fear of viruses. And I’m too old to be afraid of much of anything. But it’s kinda respectful to keep tabs on our friends and what’s killing them, if only to honor them by avoiding it and living well. Remember; if you don’t take the time to go to your friends funerals they won’t go to yours. 😉 Be well, and be wise.

  9. And screw PPE, too! Don’t need no hard hats or chaps. NOMEX is for wimps. Fight fire like a real man — naked and unafraid.

  10. So sad for the 2 men who passed away and their families.. They were True Heros. RIP Mr Calderon and Mr Saenz. Wildfires are no joke. I lived up in El Dorado County and been in the middle of the Cleveland Fire back in the 90s and the King Fire a few years back. I have seen what these brave people do and they are all true blue Hero’s. They risk their lives going into these wildfires head on. These wildfires are scary and seeing them up close and personal is a real eye opener to how powerful they are. If the elements arent just right, fighting these fires can be a long long and dangerous process. The wind and sounds that come from these fires is erie. I moved to So Cal last year and just missed the Caldor Fire. A lot of my friends were in danger and some even lost their homes, their entire neighborhoods. There is no doubt in my mind that if it werent for all the wildfire fighters, hotshots and so many others out there, Im sure there would have been so much more lost. Thank you to all the heros out there. Please be safe

    About 380 people died of Covid in Oregon in August.
    172 vaccinated people in Oregon have died, total, (not just in August), which is 0.9% of the total deaths.
    So no…. no way were 23% of the August deaths among the vaccinated. In fact, the vaccinated deaths in Oregon in August was < 5. (which makes sense, since 5/380 = 1.3%, which is reasonably close to the average 0.9% overall)
    Stop using a tragedy of two dead fire fighters to perpetrate complete lies about Covid

  12. Bill, I appreciate you bringing attention to some accountability and transparency regarding COVID-19 infections and/or death amongst the wildland firefighters working directly with and/or for contractors to US government agencies such as USFS, BLM, BIA, NPS, etc…

    In a previous position, I worked with emergency responders and continue to receive notifications from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). These notifications include, “Notification of Firefighter Fatality” . Perhaps you and some of your readers also receive these notifications.

    Since September 1, 2021, I have counted 14 notifications of firefighter fatalities from U.S. Fire Administration. Of those, 11 firefighter deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. The most recent I received today and the age of the firefighter who died was 21 years of age from North Carolina.

    I can share these notifications from my emails. Thanks for bringing attention to this issue.

  13. RIP Mr. Calderon and Mr Cessar Saenz. Thank you both for volunteering and for your service and support to Cal Fire and the State of California. Prayers for your families. It would be nice if Cal Fire mentioned this in a press briefing I’m sure their families would appreciate it.

  14. My husband was on the Dixie Fire for 30 days as a water tender operator. So thankful he’s home safe. May these 2 men RIP and their families soon find comfort.

  15. Having spent 41 days on the Dixie fire. I saw the precautions. Two signs that said “any one not vaccinated required to wear mask. Guess what? Maybe two people wore a mask. The unvaccinated don’t care if they spread the virus, or maybe they can’t read.

  16. Rest in Peace
    To You Brother and your Goid Friend and Co-worker Cessar. You both Are My Heroes. ??‍??‍??

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