Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute with Beartown Fire Crew

** This post was originally published on September 12, 2016 **

I had the humbling opportunity, on behalf of the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute, to visit the crew of the fallen and injured Beartown Firefighters in Baraga, Michigan.  WFGI desires to raise awareness and inform as many people as possible as to their condition, their immediate needs, and the horrific loss they’ve experienced.  Our hope is that the generosity of the public will be showered upon them to assist them during this difficult time.

Juliann with injured Beartown crewmember, and firefighter family.

Juliann with injured Beartown crewmember, and firefighter family.


  1. Funeral expenses: The Tribe helped with a lot of the funeral expenses but the mortuary bills need to be paid
  2. Medical expenses: These are piling up and will continue for months as they’ve sustained serious and extensive injuries requiring ongoing medical attention
  3. Loss of pay compensation:  20 man crew all out of work for the remainder of this fire season
  4. 17 children belonging to the deceased and injured:  6 children belonging to deceased, 11 children belonging to injured

I think it is important to understand who we are talking about here.  These are real people, with real families, just as we are.  They are all walking in shoes that some of us have worn and know all too well.  The loved ones have hollow expressions and dark eyes riddled with sleeplessness and worry.  They sorrow over the loss of those they laid to rest while still trying to remain positive for those fighting to regain strength and mobility.  I witnessed an element of trauma that was foreign to the tragedy my family went through…survivors of the deadly incident.  Wounded brothers.  I know that words on a page cannot do justice to the pit in my stomach as each time the door opened and another firefighter would do his best to hobble in to meet me, aided by the assistance of a walker or a cane.  Many of whom were involuntarily moaning in agony over their injuries.

Let me introduce these injured brothers to you…

    Injuries:    broken jaw
    broken ribs
    broken back
    *doctors say he’ll be laid up at least 12 weeks
    *more than likely on lifelong disability
    *the only crew member still hospitalized and unable to attend the
    Children:  Caden (4 years)
    McKenna (18 months)
    Injuries:    major brain injury
    back injury
    Injuries:     back injury
    ribs broken
    Children:   Roman (5 years)
    John (3 years)
    Alivia (23 months)
    Injuries:    collapsed lung
    broken ribs
    *Uncle of Jimmy Shelifoe (deceased)
    Children:  Ross II (11 years)
    Marissa (9 years)
    Injuries:    collapsed lung
    broken ribs
    head lacerations (staples and stitches)
    *He was riding in the passenger seat*
    Children:  Aiden (10 years)
    Kaya (7 years)
    Kiana  (5 years)
    Khloe (4 years)
    Injuries:    14 fractures
    broken ribs
    broken pelvis
    broken collarbone
    broken rotator cuff
    many lacerations (staples and stitches)
    *Only crew member with full recollection of incident
    *Describes the rollover as a human clothes dryer
    *More than likely on lifelong disability
    *In severe pain; unable to take care of himself

I was also blessed to meet the girlfriends of both of the deceased and spend some quality time with each of them.  Here is a little information on the men they lost:

  1. ALAN “AJ” SWARTZ (25)
    Mother:      Maureen
    Father:       David
    Girlfriend: Heather (Together 6 years)
    Children:   Anthony (3)
    Liam (4)
    Alan (5)
    Stepkids:    Destin (10)
    Aleena (12)
    Mother:      Sherry
    Stepdad:    Charlie
    Girlfriend: Ivory (Together 8 years)
    Child:         Ciara (2)
    *Buried in Pinery Native American Cemetery in Baraga, MI


Juliann and Ivory

Juliann and Ivory

I think it’s important to connect with the crew and their feelings as best we can.  In this instance, their culture is unique and vastly different than what you and I may be accustomed to.  I found their stance on death particularly fascinating and beautiful, given the events that put us in contact.

The crew members belong to the KBIC Ojibwa Tribe.  When a tribal member dies, they light a sacred fire on their behalf.  This sacred fire burns for 4 days, beginning from the day of their passing.  They believe that the spirit of the deceased will remain with them for those 4 days.  During that time, loved ones and tribal members will come to the fire which is surrounded with cedar, grab a pinch of tobacco and throw it into the fire.  This is their way of telling the spirit of the deceased that it is okay to go.  The deceased begin their journey west.  At the conclusion of the 4 days, and with the guidance of those throwing tobacco into the sacred fire, they arrive at the holy tree with an eagle resting at the top.  The eagle is surrounded by the deceased’s spiritual colors.  At that time, the spirit of the deceased will have the opportunity to tell the eagle what good things they’ve done in their lives.  With that, they are welcomed into the land of their ancestors.  Thus, the KBIC Ojibwa Tribe believes that death is the start of a new journey.  When death is lingering, rather than saying “on their death bed”, they say “getting ready to travel”.  I will also note…they believe that if the spirit of the deceased senses worry and contention, they will not rest.

It is in that spirit of positivity and forward thinking that we plead to those who feel inspired to donate to these families.  These men serve our country by fighting the blazes that threaten our homes.  Let’s do our part to serve their loved ones during this extraordinarily difficult time.


Injured Beartown crewmembers, firefighter families, and Juliann

Injured Beartown crewmembers, firefighter families, and Juliann

For those who feel prompted to donate to these injured firefighters and their families, as well as the families of their two brothers who perished in the accident, the following account has been established:

Superior National Bank
Account No. 201144112

Donations are also being accepted at the Tribal Center:
Keweenaw Bay Tribal Center
16429 Beartown Rd.
Baraga, MI  49908

(906) 353-6623