Firefighters retire "true" American Hotshot

awileman@sierrastar.comOctober 22, 2013 

Many young men and women dream of becoming firefighters. Only a few get to actually fulfill the dream, and even fewer get to be part of an elite brotherhood like the "Sierra Hotshots."

This particular crew of 20 choose to eat, sleep and train together during the gruesome summer months, sometimes spending all but two days a month away from their families and friends. They risk their lives, and put themselves face to face against mother natures most unforgiving fires. They do it not for glory or fame, but rather to be part of something greater than themselves and to contribute to saving lives and some of the worlds most beautiful back country.

Now, this close-knit group of fire fighting experts, who knows each other better than most, are forced to say good-bye to their beloved superintendent. After 40 years of service, Superintendent Kenneth Jordan will retire and leave behind larger than life boots to fill.

Jordan was raised in Compton, Calif. and because Jordan's father Dave Jordan, who currently coaches at Grossman College in San Diego, was a dedicated football coach they were forced to move from town to town depending on the job.

Jordan was one of four children in the family and started fighting fires in 1974 at the age of 17 while working for CAL FIRE. He worked his way up the chain of command until he realized that he wanted to be part of an outstanding group of individuals known as the Hotshots. In 1976 Jordan finally got his chance to join a Hotshot crew and he never looked back.

Hotshots Crews are usually compiled of one superintendent, two captains, two squad leaders, four lead firefighters and 11 wild-land firefighting crew members. all of which Jordan has experienced.

Since becoming superintendent of the Sierra Hotshots in 1998, Jordan has seen members wash-out, transfer, pass away and even seen a few stay the course. Regardless, his crew still remains one of the most coveted and sought after Hotshots divisions in the county.

According to squad member Scott Hillis there is a long list of highly skilled firefighters who are desperately trying to get on a team taunting one of the most courageous and knowledgable leaders.

"That guy comes through despite all odds against him and he reigns supreme, he's like a salty old war general when we walk through camp. He's well known all over the country and the amount of people trying to get on this crew is a testament to how well represented he is," Hillis said. "People who have been in this business a long time ask him for advice, It's almost like he has a crystal ball and can see what going to happen before it happens."

Throughout his experience with the Hotshots Jordan experienced many life-altering ordeals and humbling moments. He learned life-saving skills and the ability to think quickly under pressure. Since, he has used these skills to pass on his knowledge and train one of the worlds top fire-fighting units.

From saving a women's life during a brief encounter on the side of the road to being challenged by a unusually large mountain lion, Jordan has seen everything being a Hotshot entails.

One of Jordan's most life-changing events as a member of the Hotshots came in the summer of 1994 during the Big Creek fire. Jordan and his crew were fighting a fire near a ridge and Jordan found himself trapped, alone, on the side of a cliff with a 100-foot fire rising up the side of the mountain. Since he was already in a tough spot with no way out Jordan, in a last ditch effort, got to the coolest place possible on the side of a granite rock and wrapped himself in a tent like structure that all firemen carry called emergency fire shelters.

Jordan held on for dear life as the fire rushed over the top of the tent with heat exceeding 500 degrees according to authorities who analyzed the material. Jordan said the wind was so strong it almost ripped the tent from out of his hands and away from his body. He compared the sound to that of a locomotive or departing space shuttle.

Jordan said he believes he should have died that day but the thought of his three daughters gave him the will to fight.

"I knew they needed me," Jordan said.

Jordan somehow survived the inferno and says it was a life-changing event. Some have said, had been someone with less experience and knowledge, they would have died.

Following the burn-over, Jordan "found God" and says it totally changed his experience with the fire that almost claimed his life. Since, Jordan has spent time mentoring at the Sierra Pines Church and helping with their youth group something he plans to continue doing.

According to Jordan, those who know him like his family and friends, include the Sierra Hotshots crew. Members of the crew like Brian Grossman said unlike most bosses he has had in the past, Jordan never kept them in the dark and let members of the group make decisions necessary to improve their skills.

"I grew up from being a lost soul and being mentored by Ken," Brian Grossman said. "He actually is heavily involved in each of our lives outside of work."

He is known by many of the crew members to promote family values and always supported the crew in their attempts to stay close with their family members. Grossman recalls being away for long periods of time and Jordan handing out stamps, paper and envelopes to encourage the crew members to write home.

If we write a letter he'll give you the stamp, put it in an envelope and make sure it gets mailed for you just to keep up the open line for communication to our families," Grossman said.

Jordan said his biggest challenge over the past 40 years was raising his three daughters Staci, Jodi and Heather by himself.

"I raised three daughters by myself and that was sometimes more challenging than fighting fires," Jordan said "I spent roughly nine years raising them and they turned out so well cause they are so responsible and self-reliant."

One of Jordan's three daughters, Jodi Marr said her father was someone she always looked up to and is so proud of everything he has accomplished in his extensive career as a firefighter and Hotshot.

"Words can't describe my father...his career has been an amazing inspiration to my sister and I. He's always been a tough guy and he had to maintain that image. At the same time he was able to show us so much love and compassion.... we learned a lot about integrity and how to follow through," Marr said. "He's the best of both worlds, he's the tough guys with a big heart, but above all he's my Dad.... I couldn't have asked for a better role model or mentor."

Jordan married Charlotte Wild in 2002 who has four children of her own. He currently lives in Coarsegold where he plans to stay following his retirement and wants to help mentor the youth at his Mountain Area church as well as spend time with his family and help raise his five grandchildren.

The last fire Jordan was a part of was one of California's largest fires, the Rim fire. He and his crew spent weeks helping extinguish a fire that encompassed nearly 260,000 acres in and around the Yosemite National Parks. It included thousands of firefighters and took nearly a month to contain.

At the age of 57, Jordan is forced to retire by mandated rules that state a Hotshot supervisor can only serve until the age of 57. In a way he is being pushed into retirement and Jordan says if he had a choice he would stay on and help continue fighting fires regardless of the toll it takes on his body.

At 57 Jordan prides himself as being in great shape and able to perform the duties necessary to be a Sierra Hot Shot.

He says he will deeply miss his crew and the camaraderie they all share together during their experiences as Hotshots. Jordan said he will miss the traveling aspect of the job which took him to parts of the world including Canada and Australia to use his expertise of fighting fires.

"I would be nothing without my crew... those guys are an amazing bunch of guys and I would be absolutely nothing without them," Jordan said. "When I started, my objective was I wanted to work with people like that until I retired ... they are amazing hard-working, unusual people. They have a lot of integrity and it was nice to influence them in a positive way like my dad did for me. They are high in integrity and great family men. It really gives you hope for the future of this country. I loved working with the best of the best in this business, its something I will always be grateful for," Jordan said.

Following retirement Jordan plans to continue helping Sierra Pines youth in greater detail and possibly attending mission trips. He also says he want to work with a Regional Occupational Program (ROP). Whatever he does, Jordan is sure he wants to teach and pass his knowledge and life experiences on to others.

All together he will be missed. However, all the values and knowledge he has shared over the years will live on through the crew, who will continue to be a part of one of the worlds most dangerous jobs.

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