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Baker firefighter killed in crash
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Dan Rama died before he even had a chance to tackle that dangerous, dirty, back-straining job he loved.
Fighting forest fires.
Oh, he had battled blazes before, dozens of them during his five years with Grayback Forestry Contracting.
But none as big or as destructive as the Hayman fire, the largest ever in Colorado.
Rama, 28, of Baker City, left La Grande Thursday evening with 10 fellow firefighters, their van headed for Colorado.
Rama, the leader of a 20-person crew, was one of four passengers who died when the van's driver, Megan Helm, 21, of La Grande, lost control of the vehicle Friday night on Interstate 70 about 200 miles west of Denver.
"We take solace that it happened on the way to a fire that he really wanted to be at," Rama's father, Dave, said Sunday in the kitchen of the family's Baker City home.
"We were glad he was doing what he really liked to do," Rama's mother, Judy, said.
That the couple's son loved firefighting never was in doubt from the first time he buttoned up the shirt of yellow, flame-retardant fabric wildland firefighters wear.
That was in 1998.
Dan, then 24, had moved with his parents from Nebraska to Baker City.
"He just happened to be home the weekend we moved," Dave said.
He said Dan, who liked to hike and camp, also was impressed by photographs of the Elkhorn Mountains in a Baker County brochure the family had.
Once in Baker City, Dan saw Grayback's advertisement seeking firefighter recruits.
After his first training session, Dan was interested in no other job, Judy said.
"That was all it took," she said.
Dan's enthusiasm surprised his parents.
"He was the most laid back person in America," Dave said.
"It took a lot to get him excited," Judy said. "And to have him react so strongly to anything was unique. His enthusiasm for his work was wonderful."
But Dan's calm demeanor re-asserted itself once he was an experienced, confident firefighter, his parents said.
"That laid back personality made it easy for people to work with him," Dave said. "He got along with everybody, really well."
Dave said he has spoken with the father of Retha Shirley, a 19-year-old firefighter who also died in the accident.
Dave said Shirley's father told him the young woman was happy that Dan had been assigned as her crew boss for the Colorado fire.
"That was nice to hear," Dave said.
Although Dan had always enjoyed working outdoors, his childhood on the plains of Nebraska hardly prepared him for fighting forest fires.
"Not much call for forest firefighters there," Dave said. "He had never laid hands on a chainsaw."
Yet Dan relished the physical challenges of digging firelines and sawing trees, and at 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, he was well prepared to handle those challenges.
But what he liked even more was to learn about fire, to study how natural forces conspire to feed or to starve a blaze of its essential ingredients.
"He liked looking at the clouds in the sky and knowing that a cumulus cloud might bring lightning, or figuring out how the wind was going to affect the fire," Dave said.
"For him firefighting was physically challenging and mentally stimulating."
Dan combined those two things outside his professional life, too.
He played high school basketball in North Platte, Neb., battling heavier players for rebounds even though he packed just 165 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame, Dave said.
After he moved to Baker City, a much more muscular 235 pounds and an inch taller, he played on Ash Grove Cement teams that twice won the city league championship.
"He filled out a little bit," Dave said, chuckling.
Dan also was a trivia buff and cribbage expert, as well as a lifelong fan of the "Star Wars" movies.
He watched the latest installment, "Episode II: Attack of the Clones," in Baker City on either opening day or the day after, Dave said.
"He did not show up in costume, however," Dave said with a smile.
To fill the hours between fires, Dan taught himself to play guitar.
He was a music fan as well as a musician, Dave said, and as he learned the intricacies of the guitar, legend player Eric Clapton became one of Dan's favorite performers, along with the Grateful Dead and Phish.
During his years with Grayback, Dan traveled across the West to fight fires, visiting Idaho, Washington, California and New Mexico, among others.
He also worked in Kentucky and Tennessee.
And always when he was gone, his parents worried.
But never, Judy said, was it "undue worry."
"It can be a dangerous job, but he was very confident about what he could do and what his crew could do," Dave said.
The idea that the danger was on an asphalt freeway far from the flames, well, that never seemed an issue.
"You know people get run into crossing the street, but you don't stop crossing the street," Judy said.
"We also know accidents happen," Dave said. "This is an example."
Over the past two days the Ramas, who have three other sons as well as two daughters, have spent hours on the telephone, talking with relatives, many of whom live in Nebraska, and with several of Dan's high school and community college classmates.
They also expect to speak soon with the firefighters who were among Dan's closest friends. They are the ones who can best remind the Ramas of the job Dan loved and was so eager to risk his life doing.
It was a job that might well have been his permanent career, his parents believe.
"There were lots of options open to him," Dave said, among them jobs with federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, or starting his own independent firefighting company as some of his former co-workers have done.
"Certainly he was bright enough if he wanted to pursue that," Dave said.
Whatever path Dan might have chosen, his parents are certain it would have been one that required him to be outside, amid the smoke and the dust and the heat.
"But not sitting behind a desk," his mom said.