A wildland firefighter describes how his return to the Church brought strength, purpose and peace
by Joseph Pappalardo
When a wildfire moves, it sounds like a freight train. California firefighter Daniel Magallanes would tell you this is true, but right now he’s facedown in the dirt, digging a hole for fresh air.
What started as a “prescribed burn” — a fire set in the cooler seasons so the summer blazes will be less intense — is suddenly out of control. Luckily for Magallanes and his crew, they can gasp for oxygen in the flat dirt clearing, albeit surrounded by a raging fire.
This is how Magallanes describes what he experienced on April 18, 2010. He remembers the date clearly, because it was his son’s 6th birthday, and he had been planning to take the day off.
If Magallanes were to encounter such a trial today, he would utter an Our Father or Hail Mary and pray for strength. But during what he calls the scariest moment of his career, he did not consider himself a practicing Catholic.
The 38-year-old has been fighting fires for 16 years, most recently operating the fire truck as an engineer. In that time, he questioned his faith, left the Church and finally converted back, together with his wife, Gabriela. Today, they and their four children are active parishioners at Christ the Good Shepherd Parish in Adelanto, Calif., where Magallanes serves as deputy grand knight of San Juan Diego Council 13469.
“I used to feel a false sense of invincibility, crediting success to myself,” Magallanes said . “Now, every aspect of my life revolves around God.”
TAKEN BY THE HAND
Daniel Magallanes grew up a cradle Catholic in Calipatria, Calif. The former altar boy said he thought about the priesthood when he was 10 or 11 but his family discouraged a vocation.
“I felt embarrassed,” Magallanes said. “I didn’t get support from my family; not that they weren’t religious, but I was young and a troublemaker.”
Growing up across the street from a fire station, he found a different calling. He spent time at the station in high school and became a firefighter himself in 2002. He later became a wildland firefighter and today works for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
It was in the early stages of his career, Magallanes said, that doubts about his faith began to grow as he watched internet videos tearing down everything he had once believed in.
“Without any sort of education myself, I fell for the trick and started doubting,” he said.
He questioned Catholics like his church-going sister but didn’t find their answers convincing. Magallanes lost faith in the Church and organized religion; around 2006, he began considering himself an atheist.
Then, during what was supposed to be a routine controlled fire in 2010, Magallanes had his brush with death. A few months later, Gabriela was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, a large tumor on a cranial nerve.
The couple was not married at the time, but they had already been together for 10 years and had four children. Suddenly, as Gabriela prepared to undergo the eight-hour, high-risk surgery, it seemed they might not have any time left together.
When Magallanes finally entered the ICU to find Gabriela still breathing, he wasn’t alone. A man was sitting at the nurses’ station, looking over at the couple without saying anything. When he finally came over to talk, he asked if he could pray for them.
“He grabbed my wife’s hand, and he grabbed my hand,” Magallanes recalled. “At that moment, I could feel this jolt go down my spine. I can only describe it now as the Holy Spirit.”
The man was Father Miguel Urrea, a priest of the Diocese of San Bernardino and the Catholic chaplain for the hospital. Magallanes burst into tears as the priest continued to hold their hands and pray. When Father Urrea asked them if they were married, Magallanes explained he’d wanted a big wedding.
“Do you think that’s what it’s all about?” the priest asked. “Having a big party?”
After further discussion, the couple agreed to return to their faith, and in a unique situation, Father Urrea offered to preside at their wedding that very day, making all of the necessary arrangements.
“He did everything himself,” Magallanes recalled. “We got married by the Church and by the court on the same day.”
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
After Gabriela was released from the hospital, the Magallanes family began attending Christ the Good Shepherd Parish. They gradually became more involved, and Daniel joined the Knights of Columbus in 2013.
I realized that the Knights do a lot for the Church and the community, which I’m really passionate about,” he said. “I feel that I can’t do enough to help the Church.”
Jerry Burns, grand knight of Council 13469, recalls recruiting Magallanes after seeing him at Christ the Good Shepherd.
“He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to let everybody know he’s there,” Burns said. “But he wants to help, and he’s always at the right place at the right time.”
The family often assists with, or participates in, K of C fundraisers such as dinners and dances at the parish. Daniel serves on the parish council, and he and Gabriela are both extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. They are also members of the parish’s Blue Army chapter and strive to make daily devotions to Our Lady of Fatima, praying the rosary and going to confession regularly.
“Our faith is very important to our family,” Gabriela said. “We have been fortunate that our children also help serve in the parish with us.”
Despite his own busy schedule, Daniel also makes time to visit his kids’ school, giving safety talks and discussing his job.
His professional duties include maintaining the station and fire engine, making sure everyone is prepared and, because of a worker shortage, fighting the intense fires with his team. He gets to go home most nights, which is a luxury for wildland firefighters.
Prayer has become a constant part of his daily routine, and the white rosary he carries is a stark reminder of purity and faith amid ash and ruin.
“I try to pray every chance I get,” he said. “I know that the devil is trying to bring me down and get me to lose focus.”
Magallanes also asks others to pray for his crew and the many firefighters scattered across the country’s isolated forests. It’s very difficult, he said, for wildland firefighters to keep up their strength.
“A lot of people work with us for a season or two and say, ‘No, this was not what I expected.’”
Though prayer isn’t usually discussed in his line of work, Magallanes said, he sometimes receives questions from his peers, just as he once questioned his sister. He humbly acknowledges he doesn’t have all of the answers, and strives to give a passionate example of faith in action in both his career and his service with the Knights.
“My brother Knights and I try to do whatever we can for our church, and we are proud to serve,” he said. “When I joined the Order and started helping, I knew this is where I belong.”
JOSEPH PAPPALARDO is a content producer for the Knights of Columbus Communications Department.