The family, friends and peers of late firefighter Allen Johnson commemorated him on Sunday in a procession of tribute vehicles through downtown Sonora to the Mother Lode Exhibition Center, where a ceremony was held in his honor.
âWhen someone dies on the job, that’s what happens. That’s what we do,â said Gordon âWaltâ Ehmann, a retired patrol captain for the Stanislaus National Forest and the first captain. engine for Allen Johnson when he worked in Cleveland. National Forest in 1976.
âAllen was a dedicated interagency firefighter,â Ehmann continued. “He would like anyone, in any way, who came across a fire to have a memorial. He would have been the first person to come forward to have a good memorial of any other firefighter.”
Johnson was a retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter in Groveland who died of complications from COVID-19 on August 31, despite being fully vaccinated.
He was 68 years old and was hospitalized in Bakersfield at the time of his death, which was considered to be in the line of duty as he was assisting with the French Fire near Kernville.
Prior to his retirement in 2010, Johnson spent nearly four decades working for the Forest Service in California dealing with fire suppression and fuel management in the Angels, Cleveland, and National Forests. Stanislaus. He served as a battalion commander and division chief of the Groveland Ranger district.
More than 15 vehicles drove slowly, silently, and southbound on Washington Street, heading towards the Mother Lode Exhibition Center just before 2 p.m. Sunday. The procession started at Columbia Air Attack Base.
Agencies involved included various forestry service vehicles, the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office and local fire departments. Occupants of the vehicles were masked and Forest Service employees wore ceremonial uniforms.
Small crowds dispersed on the sidewalk during the procession, many close to Allen Johnson and his family, others just past acquaintances.
But no matter how close their relationship to Allen Johnson was, all had rave reviews about his character.
Under a shaded canopy outside the downtown Local Collective store, retired Summit Ranger District division chief John Payne said he had worked with Johnson and remembered him as Central Sierra Incident Commander.
âThe Forest Service is kind of a small group and kind of like a family,â Payne said. “You get to know everyone. It’s about going out and showing our dedication to a deceased firefighter.”
Johnson’s cousin Tamara Coffin Allen, 54, came to Sonora from Los Angeles on Sunday with her daughter, Jessica Coffin, 20.
Allen said she grew up with Johnson and that he gave his daughter a family heirloom during one of the last times they saw him.
“He was tickling me until I couldn’t breathe,” she said, laughing. “I just feel like the firefighters lost a huge think tank when it came to him.”
Further north, Dirk and Carol Travis were seated on a bench above Cofill Park and before the procession began.
Carol Travis, a retired career technician from Sonora High School, said Johnson was a teacher in the regional professional program at Sonora High School, now called Career Technical Education, with representatives from Cal Fire and Sonora City Fire.
âHe was a great teacher and a really great guy,â she said. “I’m not someone who would go to a funeral, but it’s amazing.”
A group of around seven gathered near the gates of The Union Democrat, including Kara McGaffee, 34, from Oakdale, who said she was a friend of Johnson’s family through her father Michael Betto, a retired fire chief in Oakdale.
âWe wouldn’t miss it for the world, that’s for sure,â she said. âWe had the privilege of knowing him.
âOur firefighter family is big and we are strong. We are happy to be here for [Johnsonâs wife, Martha Johnson] and we always will be.
The memorial began around 3 p.m. at the Mother Lode Exhibition Center and was open to the general public, although media representatives were politely urged not to attend in person.
A live broadcast of the service was broadcast via the “Allen Johnson Memorial” Facebook page and had just under 100 viewers at its peak.
John Swanson, a retired Groveland Ranger District Ranger, acted as emcee and concluded the hour-long ceremony with a written statement from Martha Johnson.
“Allen loved the fire department,” Martha Johnson said. “We know how amazing you all are at your jobs and how hard you work. God bless you and protect you.”
The speakers were flanked by a wreath and a portrait of Allen Johnson installed on stage. Boots and clothing hung from a railing behind the speakers, and a helmet and other clothing was draped over the podium.
The memorial was an explanatory praise of Allen Johnson’s professional accomplishments, but also his mentorship and humanity that made him dear to so many.
âHis mentorship got us all to where we are today,â said David Cooper, of the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team (IIMT).
His friends remembered him with what Cooper described as his “softer side.” There were his encyclopedic musical knowledge, his homemade pickles and pickled green beans he offered to his friends, advice on fishing gear and techniques, and cold lime Corona cervezas.
âAllen was quietly encouraging others to set goals,â said Deron Mill, deputy fire management officer at Yosemite National Park and a member of the South-Central Sierra IIMT. ” I’ll miss you. Martha, we’re all sorry for your loss, but I hope you find some comfort in the number of friends Allen had.
Other speakers included Jerry McGowan, retired Stanislaus National Forest Fire Management Officer; Mike Botto of the South Central Sierra IIMT and Oakdale Fire Department; and Craig Konklin, retired battalion commander for Cal Fire and fellow high school teacher with Allen Johnson.
The firefighters led the group in a forest firefighter prayer, presented two forest service flags and a forest firefighter status to the family, rang a ceremonial bell, offered cigars with a special memorial group, and made a “last call” on the radio.
“Allen Johnson retired from Division 4, Stanislaus,” the voice said over the radio. “We would like to thank you for your dedicated service and your continued sacrifices for the community”
Allen Johnson’s obituary says he is survived by his 46-year-old wife, Martha Johnson, and brothers Steve and Raymond Johnson, in addition to his in-laws, nephews, nieces and six exchange students.
Letters of condolence for the family can be sent to Martha Johnson, care of: Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor’s Office at 19777 Greenley Road, Sonora, CA, 95370.
The Forest Service also said people can honor Allen Johnson’s legacy by contributing a GoFundMe page for his memorial at https://gofund.me/8b6002a3.