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Obituary: David K Nelson

David K Nelson
David K Nelson
Provided Photo

– March 12, 2022

Father. Friend. Forester. Firefighter. Smoke Jumper. He was a few other things throughout his long life, but this is basically the order in which Dave described himself in his later years. Well, he made his last jump on March 12, 2022.

Born in Aurelia, Iowa in 1935 to Wesley and Esther Nelson, he was one of 8 siblings raised in the heartland of America. Here he spent his childhood on the gridiron and basketball court, but come summer, wrestling shirtless in the summer sun with extremely large, stubborn bales of hay. This is probably where he got his extraordinary work ethic. And his legendary stubbornness.

Looking for adventure, he began using his college summers to fight wildfires in Alaska and New Mexico as a Smoke Jumper. He would later go on to run the Smoke Jumper base in Redding, CA where he would train a cadre of jumpers who are loyal to him today.

Upon receiving his degree in Forestry from Iowa State University, he joined the US Forest Service fulltime so he could fulfill his ‘Zane Grey’ inspired ambition of becoming a forester. As a District Timber Officer in Mt Shasta, CA, he married the former Barbara Day. A couple of boys, Michael Bo and Robert Kent were created and distributed over the next couple of years. Soon enough the whole clan was henceforth dragged by the newly minted District Ranger Nelson to Southern California where they were surprised, yet delighted, to find themselves living on top of a mountain with million-dollar views of Big Bear Lake.

Dave and the family Nelson ultimately settled in Nevada City, CA and he into the role of ‘Fire God’, a term used for a few, select Fire Management Officer’s within the ranks of the US Forest Service. In this capacity he not only led the charge on some of the largest forest fires of his day, but also took great pride in helping steward the magnificent resources of the Tahoe National Forest.

Upon retiring from the Forest Service, he continued in public service for the next 20 years, selflessly chasing disasters or helping shape emergency response policy for FEMA. This work took him from the front lines of Hurricane Katrina to the cyclones of the South Pacific to Texas on the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster and to long stints in Washington D.C. attempting to help refine and perfect the policies to help alleviate the human trauma and suffering caused by natural disasters.

He enjoyed doing many things over the years. Skiing, tennis, boating, hunting, fishing, playing cards and later in life taking cruises with his brothers and sisters to many exotic locales. Most likely, though, he liked smoking cigars while burnin’ sh*t in the back yard best. Nothing to macabre, mostly the leaves, pine needles and cones he was constantly raking into a great funeral pyre. Once a Fire God, always a Fire God I guess….

Dave passed comfortably in the hospital just hours from being relocated back to his home of 50 years. His loyal guard dogs, Bo and Kent, were with him. He put up a good fight. He was 86. He was always helping. He was a great man.

He is survived by his two sons Bo and Kent, his two step kids Pete and Amy, grandkids Jordan, Logan and Kyle and former wives Barbara and Sherry. On the flip side, he outlived 4 of his 7 siblings, a couple dogs and a cat name Jorge. Not too shabby, right?

The Memorial Service is still being planned. There is an online memorial webpage set up at mykeeper.com/event/dave-nelson-memorial. The Service date, place and time will be posted there. You can also share stories, photos or add your email to that site if you would like a notification of Service details.

Dave wasn’t much of a flower guy, but he did love sending money off to charities. So, in lieu of flowers, memorials may be directed to the National Museum of Forest Service History, St. Jude or Shriners.

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