Wildfire shirts

Shirts commemorating the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties are displayed for sale by Zephyr Sportswear outside the Cal Fire basecamp in Calistoga on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Some firefighters and other first responders and support workers collect T-shirts from every wildfire they're deployed to. (Marisa Kendall/ Bay Area News Group/San Jose Mercury News/TNS)

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Been there. Fought that fire. Got the T-shirt.

As fires continue to devastate hundreds of thousands of acres of Northern California, many firefighters risking their lives to save people, animals and property are collecting one-of-a-kind souvenirs from the frontlines – 2020 wildfire T-shirts.

While that may seem to some like a morbid keepsake, it's a decades-old tradition among firefighters – a way for them to look back and say "I was there. I came to help."

And with California fires on track to potentially burn more land this year than ever before, T-shirt sales are in full swing. At least three stands were selling LNU Lightning Complex shirts at the Cal Fire basecamp in Calistoga as the fires raged, and firefighters and first responders were lining up.

"I buy one at every fire I've been on. I've got a pretty good collection of them," said 61-year-old Fire Captain Dave Stark, of the McKenzie Fire & Rescue Fire District in Oregon. "One of my favorites is the Carr Fire. Worst fire I've ever been on, but they've got some gorgeous shirts."

Stark and other first responders wear their fire T-shirts with pride, hang them on their walls and make keepsake quilts out of them. When they see someone else wearing one, they form an instant bond. But the shirts also are a tragic reminder of the people and homes lost.

Coming off a 29-hour shift on the fire line near Lake Hennessey in Napa County, Stark made a bee-line Monday for a T-shirt stand. After traveling to wildfires for years – including the 2018 Carr Fire that sparked an apocalyptic fire tornado on the outskirts of Redding and killed two firefighters – he estimates he has about 100 shirts. Each one is a memory of where he's been throughout his career, he said.

"It's a conversation starter," said Zephyr Sportswear owner Scott Dennison, who was selling $25 shirts outside the Calistoga basecamp. "It's a badge of honor. And they just love 'em."

Dennison's design this year features the tagline: "The Great 2020 California Fire Siege," with colorful pictures of firefighters, aircraft and a bulldozer. The name of the group of fires devastating Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Lake and Yolo counties – LNU Lightning Complex Fire – is printed at the bottom.

Dennison, whose screen-printing business makes custom T-shirts for schools, sports teams and events, has been working fires on the side off-and-on for about 15 years. Those extra sales will be especially important this year. After COVID-19 hit and canceled most sports games and events, Dennison's business is down at least 80%.

Some who see the fire T-shirts might think them a bad-taste keepsake of a blaze that so far has devoured more than 350,000 acres, destroyed more than 900 buildings and killed five people.

But neither Dennison nor the firefighters lining up to buy from him see it that way.

"I'm in the T-shirt business, and it's a capitalistic society," Dennison said. "I've got to pay the bills and feed the family."

One first responder buying a T-shirt Monday said he and his family typically will wait a while after the fire before wearing their shirts, out of respect for the communities that suffered losses.

Most companies that sell fire shirts usually donate a portion of the proceeds. Dennison hasn't decided what this year's charitable cause will be, but he's considering giving some of the money to the family of a helicopter pilot killed last week battling the Hills Fire in Fresno County.

Dennison wouldn't say how many shirts he's sold so far, but he said business has been steady. He worries it will slow down though, as he's been forced to move farther away from the Cal Fire basecamp. On Monday afternoon, Calistoga city officials told him he couldn't tell shirts on the side of the road without a permit. So he relocated about a mile-and-a-half away, where staff at a towing company let him set up in their parking lot.

For 21-year-old Matt Walker, of Junction City Fire & Rescue in Oregon, his new LNU fire T-shirt will be the first one in his collection. He'd never fought an out-of-state wildfire before, and he's been learning a lot. It's hotter and drier in California than at home, meaning the fires here are much more intense, he said.

And to commemorate the experience, he's got to have a T-shirt.

"It's something to say you were there," Walker said. "It's really cool to be able to wear it and you run into people and you can say, 'Hey, you were on that fire? I was on that fire.'"

Others don't wear the shirts themselves. After spending days or weeks on the fire line and away from their families, they bring the souvenirs home to their kids.

Fire Captain Scott Weese, with Cal Fire's Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit, was hunting for shirts for his 4-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son Monday.

"I haven't seen them in a while," he said. "So I want to get them something."

Patty Keune drove to Calistoga from Vacaville to get a shirt for her husband – Fire Chief Jason Keune with the Vacaville Fire Protection District, who has been fighting the LNU fires. She also bought shirts for her father-in-law – a retired volunteer firefighter – and for the other firefighters in her husband's unit.

Though Zephyr didn't have child's sizes Monday, Patty Keune also was hoping to find a shirt for her 2-year-old son, Trevor.

"It will be something when he's older," she said, "that I can say, 'We were there when it started. This is what we did.'"

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