For the past two fire seasons, Philomath Fire & Rescue personnel have headed south as part of an emergency response team created through a national state-to-state mutual aid agreement.
Philomath Fire Chief Tom Miller and volunteer firefighters Lindsay Taylor and Kyler Crocker were among the 290 individuals that assisted with the battle to contain the devastating Camp Fire and help with the aftermath.
Thankfully, our local firefighters returned home safely after a 10-day assignment in the fire zone. And they made it home in time to spend Thanksgiving with their families.
From our standpoint, the mutual aid system has so far mostly involved Oregonians helping fight fires in California. But Miller believes the roles will be reversed at some point in the future.
“The thought process is we’re going to go help them because they’re going to come help us someday,” Miller said.
Southern Oregon was among the hot spots this past summer. The Klondike Fire burned in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest area for several weeks after a lightning strike occurred about 9 miles southwest of Selma in mid-July. The fire was contained until a little more than a month ago.
“Those are unpopulated areas and we didn’t really need them, but if something were to happen, say in our area, in the valley, we obviously would need their help,” Miller said. “I think people don’t realize how many homes are actually in these hills.”
Take a drive in the rural areas of Benton County and you’ll quickly see what he means.
“It’s very similar to where we were, being up above Lake Oroville in that area,” Miller said. “It looks very similar to what we have here.”
We hope such devastation never occurs in our area, obviously, but living in an urban interface region creates concern. To try to reduce the chances, management officials pay close attention to factors such as fuels and moisture levels.
“When the trees get really dry, your grass gets really dry, your brush gets really dry, obviously that’s a recipe for disaster,” Miller said. “Somebody doing the wrong thing can cause a huge problem.”
As a result, fire officials really stress to area residents to follow backyard burning rules. The Benton County Fire Defense Board, Miller said, is considering pushing back the typical end date for a ban on backyard burning from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15. He added that the ban dates could be shortened, if needed. Benton and Linn counties also like to match up their dates to avoid any confusion among folks and that’s another factor on any possible changes.
With a lot of timber company lands in this area along with private landowners, it falls upon them to perform thinning projects to reduce the chance for wildfire. State grants are available in certain areas, such as one recently performed at Soap Creek and another that’s planned for next summer or early fall in Wren.
“It’s the middle fuels, what we call the ladder fuels,” Miller said about such projects. “That’s the fire behavior we’re seeing down there (in California). When you see a 90-foot pine tree go up and it just jumps from one to the other, what are you going to do about that from the ground? Not much.”
Miller took over as fire chief at Philomath in early 2016. Crocker has been a volunteer for about 3-1/2 years and Taylor’s been a resident volunteer for about a year and a half. They spent their first three shifts on the front line helping fight the fire.
“We were kinda bunched up in an area just east of Lake Oroville up in the hills,” Miller said.
The crew helped protect six cell towers located in the vicinity, a very important task since communications must remain intact (Miller compared it to the communications site we have here atop Marys Peak).
Miller, Taylor and Crocker then assisted with a burnout operation in another area. Despite working all day doing backfiring operations in addition to the six-blade dozer line, the fire jumped the line twice during a long night. The dozer operators and firefighters utilizing hose lines worked together to put out the fires.
More backfiring work followed as the effort continued to try to protect homes at the bottom of a hill. The exhausting work includes 24-hour stretches on the job.
“Basically, we work all night and if you’re lucky, you get a nap in the fire truck for an hour or so and you kinda trade-off,” Miller said.
When the crew was in camp, the conditions were pretty good with yurts that were brought in.
“They set it up on a dirt racetrack,” Miller said. “That camp’s not too bad — they have shower trailers, they have laundry facilities, a chow hall. … The yurts, thank goodness, had heating because it was getting down to frost in the morning.”
On the final day, the crew combed through a residential area checking houses, or what remained of houses
“A lot of animal rescue stuff,” Miller said. “We saw everything from rats to cows and horses that needed help. We went up there and searched through the homes to see if we could see anything.”
No fire victims were found.
“We were looking for people but we didn’t locate anybody ourselves,” Miller said. “The fire was so hot that a lot of what they were finding was just bone fragments, but we didn’t look that tightly; we were just looking for anything obvious.”
They also cleared roads so utility workers and search-and-rescue personnel could get around easier.
It’s a good bet that our Philomath firefighters will never forget the experiences they had in California. With them getting home safely, we had an extra reason to be thankful during the holiday.