Photo by Marcy Stamper
Kevin MacEwen, foreground, chose a black-and-white T-shirt to commemorate his time on the Crescent Mountain Fire before he heads home to Florida. Brian Burnette, rear, got to go home to Tonasket during a break in his 30 days on the fire.

Souvenir shirts create lasting memories and friendly connections

When Juan Huereca Jr. works on a wildfire – an intense blur of 15 1/2-hour workdays – he’s on the lookout for co-workers sporting familiar T-shirts. “You notice the fires you’ve been on and know you worked on the same fire. You meet a lot of interesting people – it’s fun,” said Huereca, who came from Toppenish to work on the Crescent Mountain Fire.

While Huereca isn’t too far from home, Kevin MacEwen traveled all the way from Florida to provide logistics for the Crescent Mountain Fire. Having a T-shirt from the fire helps forge a connection with a far-flung group of co-workers, they said.

Huereca and MacEwen each picked out a T-shirt adorned with a bear and a deer, firefighters on a fire line, and a helicopter dropping retardant, all set against a backdrop of craggy mountains in flames.

MacEwen chose a black T-shirt with the design in white. “There aren’t too many people who do this for a living – it’s just a memento,” he said. “You go on assignments and see people from all over the U.S.”

The T-shirts at the booth near the fire camp outside Winthrop are the handiwork of Dan Wilson, who’s been designing and hand-printing shirts and hats to commemorate fires since 2000. Before getting starting Black Sheep Tees, Wilson spent more than 16 years working on fires himself.

When Wilson first saw fire T-shirts in the 1990s, they were fairly rare. His wife had a business making embroidered athletic T-shirts, and they eventually expanded to offer shirts that commemorate wildfires. The shirts help start conversations between firefighters and increase the bond in the firefighting community, said Wilson.

Now Wilson makes the rounds of fires in the West, following the season from south to north. He travels with his design and silkscreen equipment in a trailer so he can make shirts and hats on site.

Because Wilson likes to incorporate scenes of the landscape, the local wildlife, the type of fire, and the equipment working on it, he waits until he arrives at a fire to design the shirts. “It’s a challenge to come up with artwork, because it really does matter,” he said.

Sometimes firefighters let Wilson use one of their photos in exchange for a T-shirt. Another tradition is for firefighters to create a custom sweatshirt with logos from each fire they’ve worked on, he said.

Traditional gifts

The shirts are not only popular with firefighters, but they have also become a tradition as gifts for kids when a parent has to be away from home for a long assignment, said Wilson. Property owners buy shirts to give to firefighters to thank them, and some people patch together quilts from all the fire T-shirts they collect, he said.

Wilson estimated that there are a dozen businesses that specialize in fire shirts. It’s a market that’s becoming more competitive – he was one of five T-shirt vendors at a fire in California earlier this summer, he said.

Wilson, who lives between Riverside and Tonasket, has been evacuated three times because of fires, so he can relate to the impact of fires on communities. “It’s a thing I understand. It’s very traumatic,” he said.

For Brian Burnette, picking up a T-shirt was a way to honor his long stint on the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires. “I’ve been here almost 30 days working as an engine boss,” he said. Because he lives in Tonasket, unlike most firefighters assigned to the Methow Valley blazes, at least Burnette was able to go home to see his family for two days. He even planned to meet his wife for during a lunch break this week.