Late firefighter’s parents launch campaign for heat-resistant boots in community-drive

As part of a community wide effort to support rookie wildland firefighters, family and friends of 22-year-old Reno native Will Hawkins, killed on the job almost eight years ago today, launched a campaign to pay for heat-resistant boots needed by wildland firefighters.

Hawkins, a 2012 graduate of Galena High School and student at the University of Nevada, Reno and Great Basin College, died July 10, 2016, along with 27-year-old engine captain Jacob O’Malley of Zephyr Cove, when a tire burst on the water tanker the two U.S. Bureau of Land Management firefighters were riding in north of Winnemucca. The vehicle rolled over, crushing the two men and critically injuring a third BLM firefighter. The crew had just completed a wildfire-spotting patrol for fires sparked by summer lightning strikes or other causes.

“Losing Will was a tragedy that devastated our family,” said his mother, MaryJo Hawkins, co-founder with her husband, Robert, of the non-profit Will Hawkins Rookie Boots Fund. “Our son struggled on $11 an hour to pay for safe boots that withstand the heat and inherent dangers of his chosen career. He initially bought less expensive, lower-quality boots to start his rookie season, but his feet suffered and they didn’t last even the first summer. He borrowed money from a coworker to replace them with a pair of used boots and saved for three years to buy new, good quality ones shortly before he was killed,” she said.

“Wildfires are becoming more frequent and spreading more quickly than ever before,” she added. “Fighting these fires is an extremely grueling and difficult job, and recruiting and keeping men and women in the career is becoming more challenging. Today, we ask area residents to help the next generation of firefighters to start their careers by providing them with this important piece of safety equipment, as well as send the message to them that their service and contribution to the safety of the communities they serve is valued.”

Firefighter boots can cost up to $600 per pair. The Rookie Boots Fund was created in 2023 to help offset the cost of new, specialized boots for first-year firefighters serving largely rural areas of Nevada and California’s eastern Sierra Nevada. The fund last year raised more than $15,000 and was able to reimburse 21 rookies for the cost of their boots. This year, the goal is to raise $20,000 in donations for the 2024 class. New boots will be provided to the recipients later this year.

Financial help for boots to last years’ recipients was key in overcoming substantial costs associated with being a firefighter. Other costs include safety gear, professional equipment, relocating to work sites during the season and continuing education.

When last year’s recipients applied to the program, they were asked how receiving money for boots helps. Among their replies:

It would allow me to pay back my parents for the financial assistance I needed to start this job and have the weight of paying them back off my shoulders.

Gas money to return home on days off to see my family.

I’m in college and can barely afford boots for fire season. This would allow me to work and be comfortable on the fire line.

It would help with moving and rent at the end of the season.

It would help me perform better during the season. It would also allow me to recover finances for college and help relieve other finances regarding family.

Receiving assistance would help me save extra money for my books and supplies for college as I go to UNR studying nursing.

Anyone interested in making a tax-deductible donation to the fund can do so via Venmo @rookieboots or online.