Sisters honors fallen firefighter
Last updated 8/8/2023 at 10am
Tragedy struck the Sisters Country firefighting community on August 1, 2013. John Hammack, a legendary logger and rodeo cowboy from Sisters, was preparing to fell a lightning-struck 64-inch Douglas fir tree on a lightning-sparked fire north of Highway 242 in the Mt. Washington Wilderness near Dugout Lake.
A Forest Service report recounts that "at approximately 0911 hours, after several actions to prepare for a safe felling environment and just as John was returning to the base of the tree, a large portion of the tree burned out, broke loose, and tragically fell directly onto John, killing him instantly while indirectly striking and injuring his falling partner."
Hammack's partner was transported for medical treatment and recovered.
Firefighters rappelled in to the spot where Hammack was killed and stayed with his flag-drapped body overnight. The next day, a procession of firefighters escorted by Deschutes County Sheriff's Office units rolled through Sisters with lights on, as citizens lined Cascade Avenue in silent respect. The procession provided an escort of honor for the fallen firefighter's remains, recovered from the site of the incident and transported to Redmond Memorial Gardens. The procession included his family and members of law enforcement and wildland and structural fire agencies from throughout the area.
On Tuesday, August 1, 2023, family members, Forest Service personnel, firefighters, and members of Sisters Rodeo Association congregated at the Sisters Ranger District headquarters for a memorial to mark the 10th anniversary of Hammack's death.
"Today is a day of celebration of John, a day of supporting each other, maybe sharing a story," said Kim Lightley, herself a survivor of an incident in which firefighters were killed, who now works to develop programs to help firefighters who have experienced trauma and loss.
Some of the firefighting personnel on hand for the memorial had been on Incident 398 when the tragedy occurred. They share memories of Hammack as a skilled faller. Many of the firefighters on hand were young men and women stationed in the Sisters District who attended to pay their respects and to hear stories of a legendary man of the woods.
Sisters Ranger District Fire Management Officer Andrew Myhra was instrumental in organizing the memorial, part of a commitment the fire service makes to always remember their fallen. He noted that the incident in which Hammack was killed reminds firefighters that, regardless of preparation and skill, we don't always control outcomes.
Myhra pointed out two large photographs of Hammack in rodeo action. They encapsulated Hammack's operating philosophy: "You gotta give 'er hell, right? And when you giver 'er hell, you might as will look good doing it."
Hammack's rodeo days were well represented. Longtime Sisters Rodeo Association member Curt Kallberg recalled meeting Hammack when Kallberg was a young contestant in Wild Horse Races.
"I was an urban cowboy in the Valley," Kallberg said. "(Hammack) was the real deal. We wanted to be John Hammack."
A bareback rider and bulldogger, Hammack won All-Around Cowboy at Sisters Rodeo in 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1984. He won his hometown bareback riding buckle several times. He also won the Champion Bareback Rider title in Madison Square Garden, New York City, in "The World's Toughest Rodeo."
Kallberg allowed as how he was a little starstruck when Hammack offered to push his horse out of the chute at Sisters Rodeo.
"That's like having Elvis Presley ask, 'Do you want me to sing you a song?" Kallberg said.
Kallberg learned the work of a chute boss under Hammack's tutelage.
"He was a mentor," Kallberg said. "I'm still doing it because of what he taught us."
Family members shared memories of growing up in Sisters, and a young logger noted that he looks up to the Hammack name to this day.
Hammack was remembered as a tough man, wild in his younger days, who mellowed a bit with age and loved his family deeply. He was a top cowboy and an expert faller. A decade on from his death in the forest west of Sisters, he is a man to be remembered.