USDA Honors Weaverville Duo for Heroism in Fire

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan (right), present the Award for heroism and emergency response to Tiffany Hayes and Jim Fitzgerald for heroism demonstrated by selfless actions in saving the lives of others in a residential fire. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Tiffany Hayes, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Weaverville, CA, and Jim Fitzgerald, a geologist consultant, were formally recognized for their heroism in a ceremony on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Jefferson Auditorium at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack presented Hayes and Fitzgerald with the USDA Honor Award in the category of heroism and emergency response. The Secretary’s Annual Honor Awards are the most prestigious awards given at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The purpose of Honor Awards is to provide high-level recognition to deserving USDA employees at all grade levels and private citizens who have made outstanding contributions supporting USDA’s mission and benefiting the people USDA serves.

In the early hours of May 10, 2011, Hayes and Fitzgerald risked their lives in saving an elderly neighbor, her two dogs, and other occupants of a home during a devastating house fire. Fitzgerald noticed a fire outside his window around 4:40 a.m. The fire apparently started in the garage of the neighboring home of an elderly woman, Joann Russell, who requires oxygen due to a health condition.

“We couldn’t be more proud of the selflessness and courage Tiffany and Jim displayed in a moment of crisis,” said Ed Burton, State Conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which employs Hayes. “It is in such moments our true character often surfaces.”

The fire had already burned down most of the garage and was spreading into the house. Hayes and Fitzgerald called 911, and then ran to the neighbor’s home, which was rapidly being engulfed by the fire. They alerted the occupants of the home and then entered the burning back bedroom where several highly flammable oxygen tanks were stored. They woke Russell and disconnected her oxygen, grabbed her two dogs, and carried her outside to safety. The fire department and paramedics arrived shortly after the rescue, and Joann was given oxygen and taken to the hospital but was later released in good health.

The back of the house and garage were destroyed, as were three vehicles. Damage estimates were $90,000 for the structure and $30,000 for contents. But thanks to the quick action of Hayes and Fitzgerald, no one was seriously injured.

-from press release
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Press Release

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