IMAGE: Crystal McKay
Mario Anzuoni  /  Reuters
Crystal McKay, right, cries as she is helped by a friend after the funeral service for her brother, U.S. Forest Service firefighter Jason McKay, on Friday in in Victorville, Calif.
updated 11/3/2006 4:49:34 PM ET 2006-11-03T21:49:34

A firefighter killed by the arson-set Esperanza wildfire was remembered for "noble service" Friday at the first of five funerals for members of a U.S. Forest Service engine crew overrun by flames.

"Jason McKay gave his life while protecting someone else's life and property and even though we honor his noble service today, at the same time we mourn his passing," Jeff Barbour, a pastor at High Desert Church, told McKay's family, fiancée and firefighter colleagues.

McKay, 27, and fellow crew members of San Bernardino National Forest's Engine 57 were overtaken Oct. 26 as the blaze roared through the San Jacinto Mountains 90 miles east of Los Angeles. McKay, the assistant engine operator, and three others died that day. The fifth crew member died Tuesday.

A funeral for engine operator Jess McLean, 27, was to be held later Friday, with others scheduled into next week. A public memorial service for all five was planned for Sunday.

The funerals began a day after murder and arson charges were filed against auto mechanic Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, of Beaumont in connection with the Esperanza and 10 other fires. Oyler pleaded not guilty.

‘Five heroes’
The fallen firefighters were symbolized by five American flags standing on the High Desert Church stage.

"Nine days ago, one of the worst tragedies in the 100-year history of the Forest Service took the lives of five heroes as they stood on the line, faced down the flames, and protected and served," Forest Service Chaplain Steve Seltzner said.

"It has shaken this agency and the men and women of the San Bernardino National Forest to its very core and shocked the entire world," he said.

Mourners were shown a video photo montage of McKay and his fiancée, Staci Burger, looking radiant while camping and rafting, and a picture of a smiling McKay covered in soot after fighting a fire. Accompanying music included Alan Jackson's "Like Red on a Rose."

McKay's sisters Brenda Zimmerman and Crystal McKay read poems, including one written by the parents of a baby that McKay and other members of Engine 57 helped deliver several months ago.

Firefighters request service
Dave Burkart, a chaplain with the San Bernardino County Fire Department-California Department of Forestry, recalled that a few firefighters coming off shifts at the fire last Sunday asked him to hold a memorial service. The few turned into dozens.

"They kept coming, so much so that we decided to move the service into the tent so we could use the PA system. The tent was soon filled to capacity and (they) kept coming," Burkart said.

The service ended with a presentation of a folded American flag to McKay's family by a Forest Service honor guard as bagpipes played "Amazing Grace."

The family was then escorted out between rows of firefighters standing at attention.

McKay's mother, Bonnie McKay, clutched the folded flag to her chest and was supported by a Forest Service official as she walked between lines of firefighters. Another official walked next to her carrying a square urn containing McKay's ashes. The rest of the family followed, holding hands and wiping away tears.

Riverside County prosecutors said Thursday that the case against Oyler is overwhelming, but they released no information about what evidence they have. The charges could lead to the death penalty.

In a jailhouse interview, Oyler told The Press-Enterprise of Riverside he had "no idea why they came to me."

"All I know is I didn't do this and they're trying to pin this on me," Oyler said, adding that he was home with his baby girl when the fire broke out. "They need to find the real person."

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