Mother of fallen firefighter: 'I felt like my heart ripped apart'

Mother of fallen firefighter: 'I felt like my heart ripped apart'
In this photo taken Thursday Aug. 16, 2012, Claire Veseth holds a picture of her daughter, who was killed in a recent forest fire, at her home near Moscow, Idaho. The family of Anne Veseth, who was killed last weekend fighting a wildfire in northern Idaho, say their daughter was committed to public service and fighting fires. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)
MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — Anne Veseth was a 5-foot-11 blonde beauty who liked to dress up and go out with friends. She also was a trained auto mechanic and a forest firefighter.

On Saturday, a huge crowd is expected for the funeral of the 20-year-old who died last weekend when a tree fell on her while she was fighting a blaze in Idaho.

"Her cards were up," said mother Claire Veseth, 55, a nurse in this college town. "It was an act of God."

Fire officials are investigating the death.

Anne Veseth died as she and other members of her 20-person crew were trying to extinguish the 43-acre Steep Corner fire near Orofino. They were establishing and reinforcing a fire line on one perimeter of the blaze, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Phil Sammon said.

At least two federal investigators from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration are on the scene in Orofino, looking into Sunday's accident. An investigation could take up to six months.

Between 2002 and 2011, only two of 58 U.S. Forest Service firefighter fatalities came from hazardous trees like the one that killed Veseth. As of July 31, eight firefighters have died this year in wildland fire incidents, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Veseth was a Type 2 firefighter, one of the agency's thousands of seasonal employees dispatched to the nation's forests during the spring and summer fire seasons. The Forest Service said Veseth had completed the safety courses required of every person in her crew.

Her mother and three surviving siblings — Rachel, 26; Brian, 24; and Julia, 22 — gathered at the family home to discuss their sister with The Associated Press on Thursday. Father Roger died in 2003.

Brian Veseth has been a forest firefighter for seven years, and he was approached by his sister in 2010 about getting a job. This was Anne's second year fighting wildfires, and she was assigned to a base camp near Orofino. Brian described his sister as a "bombshell" who easily made friends with boys. The problem was that many of them also wanted to be her boyfriend, he said with a laugh.

Rachel Veseth described her sister's clothing style, which often ran to blue basketball shorts, a wife beater t-shirt and cowboy boots.

But "she loved to dress up, put on makeup and do her hair," Rachel said. "She wore heels despite being 5-11."

The children grew up just outside this college town. Anne Veseth graduated from Moscow High School with a 3.92 grade point average, and recently completed a two-year degree in auto technology at nearby Lewis-Clark State College, despite having previously expressed little interest in auto repair. She worked sometimes at an auto store in town.

But her family said she wasn't sure about becoming a mechanic. Like many 20-year-olds, Anne was still trying to decide what to do. Her family said she was so interested in firefighting that she had enrolled at the University of Idaho here with a goal of studying forestry or fire ecology, which is the study of how fire impacts wildlands.

"She loved it, and went back this year," her brother said of firefighting. Anne this year had already been sent to fires in Colorado and Arizona, he said.

With Brian already a firefighter and Rachel previously working as a river guide on some of Idaho's whitewater streams, Claire Veseth was used to her children having risky jobs.

"My children never chose sedate office jobs," Claire said. "But I never held them back, either."

Rachel is now a paramedic in Canyon County, near Boise. Julia is a distance runner for the University of Idaho.

Anne loved country music, hiking, working out and going in her truck for long drives in the mountains that start on the outskirts of Moscow. She played basketball for two years at Moscow High, and competed in a junior miss pageant her junior year, where her talent was breakdancing.

Anne expected perfection from herself, constantly making elaborate lists, and often lamented that she wasn't as focused in her personal life as her siblings.

"I told her 'this is life,'" Claire said. "Few people decide at 18 what they will do for the next 50 years."

Claire was home alone last Sunday when she got a telephone call from Brian, who she said sounded as if he was gasping. Brian had been given the bad news by his supervisor.

"When he asked if I was sitting down, I knew it was probably Anne," Claire said, wiping away tears. "I felt like my heart kind of ripped apart."

Her service had to be moved from the Catholic church to the Church of the Nazarene, which seats 1,300 people.

Firefighters and dignitaries from across the region are expected. Flowers have arrived from distant fire departments.

Claire has received sympathy email from firefighters as far away as Australia, she said.

"It has just been incredible," she said.