The tone out crackled across the Payson 911 scanners at 11 a.m. Saturday and the recording later echoed through a stately Phoenix church, past panes of stained glass and pews full of firefighters from around the state dressed in their best.
Dispatch: Alarm to Lt. Bobby Mollere. Silence
Dispatch: Alarm to Lt. Bobby Mollere. Silence
Dispatch: Alarm to Lt. Bobby Mollere the citizens of the Hellsgate Fire District and Meads Ranch thank you for your 14 years of dedicated service as a firefighter, emergency medical technician, mechanic and lieutenant. This is your last alarm and your final assignment. Your final duty will be to watch over your wife, friends and fellow firefighters. Hellsgate Fire Lt. Bobby Mollere you will be greatly missed by all. May you rest in peace.
It was the final send off for Mollere who died March 8 while taking a wildland fire pack test on the Payson High School track.
Mollere, like other area firefighters, was getting ready for the upcoming wildfire season in the face of extreme drought conditions.
As Mollere rounded a corner on the track, he collapsed into the arms of a fellow firefighter and was gone despite feverish efforts to save him.
News of his death shocked the Rim Country fire community, which has not lost a firefighter in the line of duty as far as anyone can remember.
Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch, who spoke at Mollere’s funeral Sunday at the All Saints Episcopal Church, in front of a packed crowd of firefighters, friends and a statewide Color Guard, said Mollere was ready for the wildfire season.
Mollere and Hatch had worked several wildland fires together, including the Wallow Fire, where they forged a special friendship working 18-hour shifts.
Hatch remembered how everyone at the station teased him about being paired up with Mollere for Wallow, joking they would argue the whole time. Instead, Hatch said, it was the most fun he ever had working a wildfire and he has been on 48 other fires.
Stationed with a water truck, the men sometimes had down time. Mollere once posted a sign with an arrow to their water truck reading, “Water, Visa/ MasterCard accepted.”
Mollere always had fun, even in the most stressful situations. Pictures of Mollere’s antics were shown at the funeral during a video montage that included images of Mollere laughing and smiling at the fire station, relaxing with his wife Willie and cradling baby birds, which he loved raising.
When Mollere started as a volunteer at the Mead Ranch station, he figured he’d spend a few hours here and there. He insisted he just wanted to help out, with no desire to become a certified firefighter. He didn’t want to become an EMT because of all the blood and “sure as heck” didn’t want to become a wildland firefighter.
In the end, Mollere earned certifications as a firefighter, EMT, wildland firefighter and even a lieutenant with Hellsgate.
“His desire to serve never ended,” Hatch said.
In his 32-year career, Saturday marked the first time Hatch had put one of his own firefighters to rest. Former Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi, who attended Sunday’s services, said he never had to do it.
“This is one of those opportunities you pray you never have to do, but it is an honor that I get to do that today,” Hatch said, holding back tears. Looking up, he only half joking asked Mollere to see if he could get God to arrange a little moisture for Rim Country.
Hatch described Mollere as a kid who was never seen without a smile, a description echoed all day Sunday. The day started with a procession in Payson, with Mollere’s ashes onboard Hellsgate’s engine 211. Paramedics and firefighters stood saluting as the engine passed through town. The day continued with the church services and then a lunch for his friends at Mollere’s home.
Friends huddled around poster boards filled with pictures of Mollere and exchanged stories of his kindness and good humor.
Hellsgate Battalion Chief David Bathke, who last year joined the department after moving from Wisconsin, said Mollere coined him a cheese head being from the dairy state.
He recalled working with Mollere on one of the department’s aging trucks. “I told Bobby with how long this job was taking he should maybe weld some stainless steel udders to the bottom of that fire engine so we could get some milk out,” Bathke said. “The very next day, when he was out working on that apparatus, Bobby placed a cow milking stool next to the fire engine and worked on it. When I said “Good morning” to him he handed me a cup of diesel fuel and said, “Chief, here is what I got.”
Hellsgate’s business manager Angie Lecher remembered how Mollere always left her and administrative assistant Karen Carlen a small chocolate on each of their desks, saying he needed to keep them happy because they ran the department.
Two of Mollere’s best friends, Jay Wagner and Rick Washburn, who volunteered with Hellsgate before moving to San Diego, rode with Mollere’s ashes in the engine Sunday. Each kept a leg securely against the wooden box crafted by John Jackson holding Mollere’s ashes.
Throughout the drive, the men recounted how close they were with Mollere even after they moved away. They texted daily and continued their friendship. Wagner said Mollere had a good heart, but was a jokester who gave everyone pet names. Washburn was dubbed Buddha Belly.
Mollere, who didn’t have any children, loved to raise birds from the egg, raising several quails, pheasants and a chicken.
Every seat was taken in engine 211 and throughout the drive the group bounced from joking about Mollere’s clowning around to crying about missing him. Hatch said he kept thinking about 8:37 a.m., the time he got the call about Mollere’s collapse. “I pray every night about it,” he said.
In the Valley, everyone stared in amazement at the crowd of fire engines from nearly every Valley department, the helicopter escort from Native Air, the giant American flag stretched between two ladder trucks and then the bagpipes waiting at the church.
As part of a brotherhood, all those other departments turned out, Hatch explained.
Hellsgate Capt. Nick Fitch, Mollere’s supervisor, said the Phoenix Fire Department had swooped in and virtually taken care of everything.
As the bagpipes played, everyone watched as Mollere’s ashes were placed back on the engine and taken on one last ride to his home. The red urn was placed on Willie’s mantle, with the inscription “I shall never forget you My Husband” facing out near a picture of Mollere and an Arizona flag.
“My deepest sympathies,” Bathke said to Willie. “I can’t imagine the pain and the grief that is in your heart, but during this time of great sorrow I hope you take comfort in the profound gratitude of the residents of the Hellsgate Fire District. Every resident and firefighter across the country is with you today.”