The California Fire Foundation hosted its 2023 Annual California Firefighters Memorial Ceremony and Procession Ceremony on Oct. 14 at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Sacramento.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond attended the event organized to honor 35 firefighters who died in the line of duty. Among the honorees was Ronald Yale Wiley, an African American Deputy Fire Marshal Wiley from Richmond who died on duty in 2007.
The state formally presented a U.S. flag to each of the families of those whose names are being added to the Fighter’s Memorial Wall in Capitol Park on the east side of the State Capitol.
“We’re recognizing and celebrating the life and times of people who tried to make the world a little bit gentler,” Newsom said of the fallen. “They stood tall because they bent down on one knee to help lift other people up. People that came from every conceivable walk of life, political background, and different generations. The 35, we memorialize here today — all with a singular love, and that is a love for public service.”
Nearly a thousand people attended the ceremony. The procession showcased firefighting apparatus and was marked by the presence of hundreds of active-duty firefighters from all over California, forming a “sea of blue.” Accompanying them were the Pipes and Drums of California Professional Firefighters, honor guards from dozens of fire departments, the families of fallen firefighters from across the state, and various state officials and guests.
The ceremony commenced with a bagpiper playing at the Memorial
Wall, a monument built in Sacramento in 2002 to honor the memory, sacrifice and bravery of firefighters who paid the ultimate price while keeping Californians safe. Called “Holding the Line,” the sculpture was created by artist Lawrence Noble and pays tribute to the profession’s spirit of teamwork, focus, and dedication, according to the State of California Capitol Museum.
“When they were called to duty…they came through and they gave as much as anybody is expected to give for their community, their profession, their brothers and sisters, and their state,” said Brian K. Rice, President of California Professional Firefighters. “This ceremony is a tribute to that selfless dedication, and more than that, a tribute to the families that stood behind these men.”
In 2007, Wiley, a Black firefighter honored at the ceremony, was returning to his office from a meeting in Vallejo when the city-owned vehicle he was driving crashed and burned after an accident on the Carquinez Bridge on I-80. Wiley, 47, was 16 years into the profession when the incident happened, his son Dante Wiley told California Black Media (CBM).
Dante Wiley, who is a Fire Inspector for Richmond’s Fire Department, attended the ceremony with his wife, children, uncle, and other family members. Ronald Wiley’s name is etched in stone alongside more than 1,500 California firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty since California became a state in 1850.
“This was a powerful event,” the younger Wiley said of the ceremony. “I brought my three children out here with me so that they can have a better understanding of who my father was. It’s my first time here in 16 years. I have my lovely wife to thank for that. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here.”
Dante Wiley is a second-generation firefighter, and one of 20 Blacks
among 97 firefighters in Richmond. He said his uncle also spent 30 years as a firefighter in Oakland.
Nationwide, the number of Black professional and volunteer firefighters is relatively low. According to Data USA, in 2021, there were 324,149 firefighters in the United States. Of this figure, 4.38% were woman and 95.6% men. Black firefighters represented 7.4% and Hispanics made up 11.2% as compared to 82.2% of White firefighters.
California has around 35,000 firefighters, Rice said at the ceremony. While the profession is desirable and has many benefits, in many jurisdictions, the workforce does not reflect diversity of the communities they serve. During a 12-year stretch from 1993 to 2005, for example, The San Bernardino City Fire Department (SBCFD) did not hire any Black firefighters.
Now, SBCFD, one of the oldest and largest fire departments in San Bernardino County, has hired a total of 19 Black firefighters, according to Factors Affecting the Hiring of Black Firefighters, a report by James M. Fratus. The late Jimmy Jews broke the color barrier when he became San Bernardino’s first Black firefighter in 1971. He was the city’s first Black cop before transferring to SBCFD.
In the mid-2010s, the city of Los Angeles launched an investigation into allegations of nepotism, discrimination, and gender bias in its fire department. The city of Sacramento has been hit with lawsuits that allege various incidents of discrimination against Black firefighters between 2018 and 2022.
Dante Wiley says the opportunities are there for the taking. He is actively involved in recruiting efforts.
“I do believe representation matters and so does education,” Wiley said. “When I mean education, I mean outreach. I was fortunate because I saw it every day with my father and, before him, my uncle. A lot of people
don’t have that exposure. One of my goals is to get out there and talk to people at high schools, junior colleges, or colleges. Is it for everybody? No. But there are different ways you can go out there and help people. For me, I just want to be a service for my community.”
Article by Antonio Ray Harvey/California Black Media
The family of Ronald Yale Wiley visits the California Firefighters Memorial Wall to trace his name engraved on monument. Wiley, who died in the line of duty on in 2007, was a Deputy Marshall for Richmond’s Fire Department. Oct. 14, 2023. CBM Photo by Antonio Ray Harvey.