There are few people who can say they’ve survived a fiery car crash. There are even fewer who can say they survived and watched helplessly as one of their young children who was with them did not. But that is exactly what happened to Dawn Hirn almost 18 years ago. She still bears the physical scars of over 27 percent of her body being burned, but she will be the first to tell you that those scars can’t begin to compare to the emotional and mental pain that accompanies losing a child, especially in an accident she survived. It’s taken years, but Dawn’s unique combination of creative energy, point-blank honesty and an acute sense of empathy have lead her to places she never imagined she would go as she works tirelessly through the Ryan Shines Burn Foundation to bring hope and healing to pediatric burn survivors and the firefighters who save them.

Ryan Hirn

Through the Darkness

Back on a fall day in 2001, Dawn and her husband, Ron, and their two sons Ryan and Tyler were on their way from 7-year-old Ryan’s first swim meet to his soccer match when the accident occurred near their home in Texas. The car they were in rolled several times and caught fire. Everyone suffered burns, but Ryan was unable to be removed from the vehicle and died from his injuries.

The aftermath was devastating for both Ron and Dawn. “I was suicidal,” Dawn says simply. “For a long time, I prayed that if I were in an airplane, it would crash. I didn’t get to give my life for my child. It’s a guilt I’ll live with forever.”

In the months that followed, Dawn’s younger son Tyler became her reason for living. She poured herself into her family. She and Ron had two more children, both boys. But something was missing. The creative spark that had always energized her was completely gone.

She had worked in front of the camera as an actress and model and behind the camera as a director and producer of commercials. She worked in her family’s jewelry business, creating and marketing their designs. But following Ryan’s death, the well seemed to have run dry. “I faked my way for years,” she says, but she knew deep down that something had to change.

It took a while. One catalyst for that change was the family’s decision to move from Texas, where life had become “like living in a fishbowl,” Dawn says. They moved to Lake Martin in Alabama so that Ron could continue his career as an optometrist. Dawn began homeschooling the boys, and she says it was one in a series of steps that reawakened the creativity in her that seemed to have been destroyed in the fire.

“I never thought I would homeschool. When I would tell my friends I was homeschooling, they would be like, ‘Wait, what? You?’” she says with a laugh. “They couldn’t believe I was really doing it.”

But the schooling became a way to create, although one Dawn couldn’t have imagined before. “When you’re a creative person and you’re stripped of everything you want to do, you ask yourself ‘How do I create? What can I do?’” Slowly, Dawn found herself wanting to live again.

Dawn Hirn

Into the Light

Then one day, Tyler announced he wanted to go to a “regular” school. Dawn and Ron, who had spent part of the early years of their marriage traveling around Europe in a camper, realized that if they wanted to take the family on the trip around the world they had always dreamed of, this was the best time to do it.

Dawn decided to document their journey, hiring a videographer to film their travels. “I wanted to show that you don’t have to be afraid,” she explains. “We took our small kids all over the world and let them roam. They talked to rice farmers in Thailand and experienced so much.” The trip was a major step back into the world for a family that had existed in a self-protective shell for years.

The Hirns settled in Mountain Brook after their travels, and Dawn threw herself into the work of the Ryan Shines Burn Foundation, which she began started to help pediatric burn survivors. She envisioned the experience of their world travels forming the basis of funding for the foundation and for creative outlets. And so she produced a television pilot, but the interest was limited. Then she wrote a memoir, but says she learned that a memoir is a hard sell if you’re not famous. When she was approached about turning their experience into a faith-based movie, she was initially a bit resistant to the idea. After seeking the advice of trusted friends and spiritual counselors, she is now working on a screenplay for a faith-based film.

But as the process of bringing their story to a wider audience progressed slowly with many stops and starts, Dawn felt frustrated. Once again, she found herself in a place she never thought she would be. An old friend contacted her with a proposal that seemed like a bit of a stretch.

“He told me, ‘I know the most disappointing thing to you about not selling the TV show and waiting for this movie is that you can’t give a percentage to Ryan Shines. I want to organize a fishing tournament with firefighters and burn survivors,’” she says. “I told him ‘That’s crazy. I don’t even like to fish!’”

Her friend was insistent, though, producing a 13-page business plan for how to proceed. Still skeptical, Dawn agreed to give it a try. “Last year was just about getting our feet wet,” she says, but they raised enough money that Dawn was encouraged to pursue fishing tournaments as a means of fundraising. With it came a new outlet for Dawn’s passion to help others.

“If these fishing tournaments take off and we start raising a lot of money, what could we do specifically to help firefighters?” Dawn asked. She began researching ways to help these warriors who risk their own lives to save others, and what she found was sobering. “Alabama is number one in the country for fire deaths among civilians,” she says. “We are number two in the country for firefighter suicides that are work-related.” Because of privacy laws, firefighters have little information about the people they save unless the survivor or family members choose to seek them out, so there is little closure for many of them. The incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder among firefighters is frighteningly high.

Dawn understands these statistics because she has lived them.

Now, she travels throughout the state, visiting firefighters and bringing awareness to these issues. Firefighters are a tight-knit group, and her initial reception from them is usually quite skeptical. “But then I tell my story. I don’t have an agenda.” She draws from her jewelry designing past and presents them with designs featuring fish hooks that she’s made “for their wives and girlfriends, mostly,” she says with a laugh.

Her goal? A peer support network across the entire state for firefighters. Dawn says that the most helpful resource for her and Ron in the time after Ryan’s death came from peer support groups. “Peer support provides help that even the best professionals just can’t give.” In a community primarily of men who are accustomed to saving others but are usually reluctant to ask for help even if they realize they need it, peer support could literally save a life.

This year’s Ryan Shines fishing tournament, Catching Courage, will be held in Islamorada, Florida, in mid-July and will bring together teams of firefighter fishermen from as far away as Houston and New York City as well as teams from Alabama. It will also offer pediatric burn survivors the opportunity to have fun serving as “first mates” for the fishing teams. What Dawn loves most, she says, is creating opportunities for firefighters and burn survivors to bond over a fun activity. “There’s a lot of healing involved” in these interactions, she says.

Healing. It was a process forced on Dawn Hirn completely against her will, but one that she understands better than most. Now it drives her every day to work tirelessly to bring healing and wholeness to those scarred by fire.


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Heroes and Hooks

A freshwater bass fishing tournament in May at Lake Guntersville with winners advancing to the Catching Courage saltwater tournament in Islamorada, Florida in July

Learn more:

  • Ryan Shines Burn Foundation on Facebook
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