Following theft, mother of fallen firefighter receives replacement flags from local hotshots

CEDAR CITY — The mother of a Cedar City man who died while fighting a wildfire in Arizona six years ago was disheartened when a commemorative flag was stolen from her front yard last month. 

Newly replaced U.S. flag and Granite Mountain Hotshots commemorative flag at the home of Gayemarie Ekker, Cedar City, Utah, Aug. 20, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

But Gayemarie Ekker’s spirits were lifted Tuesday as members of the Cedar City Hotshots wildland firefighting crew visited her home and presented her with new replacement flags.

The new flags are a U.S. flag and a special red-and-yellow flag honoring the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed while fighting a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, on June 30, 2013. Ekker’s son Joe Thurston died in that incident.

Tuesday afternoon, the new flags fluttered in the breeze atop a shiny new flagpole in the yard of Ekker and her partner Larry Gooding. Ekker told Cedar City News they never did find out who took the first set of flags the weekend after the Fourth of July or why.

Still, Ekker said she’s grateful for the outpouring of support she’s received since word got out about the theft.

“I love Cedar City,” she said. “It’s a wonderful community, a close-knit community. And there’s no other family like the wildland firefighter family. They’re just the best.”

“Things happen for a reason, and now I have 20 more family members,” Ekker added.

Ekker said she was especially moved after finding out the Cedar City Hotshots are scheduled to be deployed Wednesday morning to the Trumbull Fire in northern ArizonaShe said the most touching part was knowing they’re going to be deployed in the morning and be gone for two weeks but that they still took an hour of their personal time to bring the flags and visit with her and Gooding.

Dave Harmon, superintendent of Cedar City Hotshots, said his team was more than happy to step in to help.

“We were just looking to make something right,” Harmon said. “It was the right thing to do.”

Members of Cedar City Hotshots present replacement flags to Gayemarie Ekker at her home, Cedar City, Utah, Aug. 20, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Cedar City Hotshots, U.S. Forest Service, St. George News / Cedar City News

The Cedar City Hotshots presented Ekker with not just the two flags for display but also two others, folded and placed in wooden triangular display boxes with Thurston’s name inscribed on each as keepsakes. The team members also signed their names on the back of one of the boxes during Tuesday’s presentation.

Additionally, Kevin Greenhalgh, forest fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service Dixie National Forest, presented Ekker with a canvas print of a painting by noted local artist Arlene Braithwaite.

“It’s a print of her painting of a fire on the Dixie National Forest after a year had gone by,” Ekker said.

Ekker said as a result of the recent publicity, she also recently received yet another special flag with Thurston’s picture on it from Colleen Hoffman of Prescott, Arizona. Hoffman is the mother of Travis Turbyfill, one of the 18 other Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished alongside Thurston.

That set of commemorative flags was created by the 100 Club, an Arizona organization that supports police and fire families in need. Ekker said Hoffman told her she was surprised to learn that Ekker did not yet have a copy of the flag honoring her son, so Hoffman made sure she got one.

Ekker was all smiles Tuesday as she admired the flags flying on her new flagpole. 

“It’s right outside my kitchen window, so I can keep my eye on it,” she said. “It’s a lot more secure.”

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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