VICTORVILLE, Calif. – Firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service's honor guard practice for hours, folding flags in neat triangles, marching in two tight lines and standing at attention as its bagpiper plays "Amazing Grace."
They also pray the preparation goes to waste.
The 12-member guard has been performing close to its home in recent days at services for the five firefighters killed in an arson wildfire.
"We knew most of them," said commander Eric Martinez, who calls out the orders. "None of us want to be here doing this, but if it's going to be somebody, it's going to be us."
The San Bernardino-based team attended Friday's funeral for 27-year-old firefighter Jason McKay. They planned to appear Sunday at a public memorial in Devore expected to draw as many as 25,000 mourners.
Though every Forest Service funeral is hard for the tight-knit crew, the latest memorials have been particularly difficult. The fallen men lived nearby, and many guard members knew at least one of them personally.
"At times, you have to set back and remember that you have a job to do and an honor to perform," said Rene McCormick, the honor guard recruiter and a battalion chief in the San Bernardino National Forest. "It definitely tugs at our heart and hurts us."
Robert Conacher, the bagpiper, said his emotions have come close to interfering with his playing during the funerals, despite 48 years of experience.
"You just have to steel yourself and focus on what you're doing and keep blowing, keep the pressure going," he said, still wearing his kilt and knee-high stockings after McKay's service.
As they go from one funeral to the next, the men and women of the honor guard say they'd rather be anywhere else.
"I'd love to say I wouldn't be there," McCormick said. "I'd love to say we have no more to do after today."
The Forest Service is considering funding up to 50 more honor guard members at bases around the nation. But for now, the dozen men and women of the San Bernardino National Forest crew are on call for funerals for colleagues across the nation.
In the past year, they have traveled to Idaho, northern California, Maryland and Washington, D.C., to perform.
At each service, they move through an elaborate ceremony laden with tradition.
They carry firefighting tools from the past and present as they move through choreographed formations. Among the items are old-fashioned chrome "brush hooks" used to clear vegetation and modern-day Pulaskis, axe-like tools used to cut fire line.
Toward the end of the service, they ring a fire bell 15 times — a symbolic "last call" based on an old telegraph pattern used to communicate between firehouses 100 years ago.
Then, the guard members carefully fold an American flag into a book-sized triangle and present it to the grieving family.
At McKay's funeral, mourners waited several minutes in complete silence as Martinez smoothed and tucked the flag for his mother.
"You want to make sure that when they get it, it's perfect," Martinez said later. "It's something that they're going to have for the rest of their lives since they lost their loved one."