In late October, Tom Porter went in for a 24-hour shift with the Corvallis Fire Department, not knowing he wouldn’t be coming home to his family for two weeks.
Porter was one of more than two dozen mid-valley firefighters called up by the Oregon State Fire Marshal and deployed to battle wildfires in California on Oct. 27. In all, 14 Oregon counties sent a total of around 300 personnel to California.
Oregon last sent firefighters to California for the 2018 Camp Fire that devastated the city of Paradise, the fire marshal’s office said in a press release. That fire scorched more than 153,000 acres and killed 85 people.
Porter and other local firefighters spoke last week about their deployment.
He said he and others from Corvallis and Philomath were formed into a primarily purely county-based strike team, with a few firefighters from Albany, Lebanon and Harrisburg in the mix. A Linn County-based strike team was assembled with personnel from Albany, Lebanon, Tangent, Sweet Home and Halsey-Shedd. Each strike team took five brush rigs.
When the 15 Oregon teams arrived in California on Oct. 27, they were split up and sent to different fires. The primarily Benton County team went first to the Burris Fire near Ukiah, while the Linn team was sent to the Kincade Fire near Santa Rosa.
Lt. Brent Goold of the Corvallis Fire Department said the Burris Fire was just 700 acres, but it was separated from a city by ground that had never burned, so it was something that could have gotten out of control. The strike team laid hose lines for crews and, on foot, did the grueling work of sweeping areas the fire had passed through, hauling water packs on their backs and extinguishing hot spots.
The team was on that fire from Oct. 27-29, working shifts where members were on for 24 hours and then off for 24. Throughout the trip the Oregon crews worked the 24-hour shifts the California firefighters did. But factor in travel to and from the fire zone as well as equipment maintenance, and that can push the hours firefighters are on their feet to around 36.
“When you’ve seen the sun go up and come down twice and you’re still awake, that’s a long day,” he said.
Meanwhile, at the Kincade Fire, the Linn County team was pulling grueling shifts of its own. Lt. Levi Lindsey of the Albany Fire Department said the group laid hose lines and dug fire lines in terrain so rough it couldn't be accessed by vehicles.
Building fire lines is hard work, he said, with firefighters clearing ground with chainsaws and hand tools to create areas fire can’t pass through. He felt the Linn County firefighters performed the work admirably.
“Any assignment we were given, we accomplished," Lindsey said. "It’s very rigorous work and we got it done."
The Linn County strike team was assigned to the Kincade Fire, which consumed more than 70,000 acres from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3. By Oct. 30, the mostly Benton-based strike team was redeployed to it.
Corvallis Fire Battalion Chief Kevin Fulsher, who led the latter, said he was tasked when he arrived with directing four water-dumping helicopters. He has training in that as part of his strike team leader certification, as well as experience working with medical helicopters. But he'd never done anything with multiple helicopters before.
Goold estimated those helicopters were each making at least three drops an hour.
Fulsher lost track of time as he worked the radio on a high ridge overlooking the conflagration, directing helicopters to spots to hit the fire. However, his fellow strike team members have photos that show he was there for around five hours without a break.
“When you are down there," Fulsher said, "you do anything you can safely do."
His strike team wasn't idle as he worked, either. They continued laying hose lines and mopping up. Fulsher said two of his firefighters with water packs both totaled 19,000 feet of elevation gained and lost throughout a day as they traversed steep terrain on foot.
The primarily Benton-based team’s spent its second Kincade shift on tactical patrol, checking buildings and likely looking under porches for embers, among other tasks.
Porter said the crew spent some of that shift doing what local fire departments would do for their communities, like feeding cows whose owners had evacuated. They also had to console a family that returned to find their home had burned, and to help them find their fire safe.
You need a lot of empathy in these moments, he said. "The first thing you do is try to put yourself in their shoes and think about how you can help them."
By Nov. 3 both teams got the order to head home.
There's a lot work to do after returning from such a fire, Fulsher said, like filling out paperwork and getting hoses from California officials to replace the ones they left with crews.
Then, as both teams were on the road home to Oregon, the radio calls came.
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They were needed again.
The strike teams were redeployed to the Ranch Fire near Red Bluff, California.
Fulsher said the blaze had only just started, and was only 450 acres when they arrived (it consumed about 2,500 acres in total, according to the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection). His strike team was tasked with moving fire vehicles left behind by crews out of the fire's path on a narrow road with a steep drop on the side.
After that, the two mid-valley teams reunited. Although both had been at the Kincade Fire, they hadn’t worked it together. However, at the Ranch Fire, they teamed up through the night, creating a fire line along a road.
“It was really good to see someone I knew,” Lindsey said.
Fulsher said roads are a natural fire break and crews were working to clear brush out an additional 10 feet from the road to increase the break's size. In all, the combined teams cleared brush along 1,200 feet of the road.
Fulsher said he’s worked with Lindsey before, but working so closely with him and the Linn County team brought them together. These relationships will strengthen local departments' ability to support each other in emergencies at home, he added.
The next day, bulldozers were able to create fire breaks in flatter terrain to effectively contain the fire. The team got to see its whole cycle.
The Linn County team was deployed in California until Nov. 7. The primarily Benton County team returned to Oregon two days later.
After the fire
Firefighters on both teams found the experience difficult — not just the physical challenges, but also the hardship of being away from their families.
Fulsher said that as a team leader he promised his crew he'd get them all home, so he also felt pressure to keep everyone safe.
Lindsey's son plays on West Albany High School’s football team and his daughter plays in the school’s band at games, and he missed one of the games during his deployment.
“It’s mentally challenging for me because I miss my family, but we are happy to be there and we’re happy to help," he said.
According to Lindsey, the Linn County team worked through an evening during the Ranch Fire to protect three houses. Although he’ll never meet those people, he said, knowing he saved their homes makes the hardships worthwhile.
“We’re all in this business because we like helping people. While this was a challenge, it’s also rewarding,” Fulsher said.
“It’s nice to be able to go and help a neighboring state,” Porter said. “It’s a privilege to do that for them.”
“You never know when we’re going to need their help,” Fulsher added.
The firefighters also praised their spouses for managing their lives and kids during the deployment.
“My wife is a real hero for running our house with two teenagers and sports and activities,” Lindsey said.
The firefighters also said they were welcomed enthusiastically by both the people of California and its fire agencies. According to Lindsey, people were surprised they’d come all the way from Oregon and were thankful and appreciative.
“They were so nice to us,” he said.
Goold said the relationship between Oregon and California agencies, in which Oregon firefighters help with California fires, is fairly new. He said Oregon has come a long way in recent decades in improving its capacity to respond quickly to fires.
“In 24 hours (the Oregon Fire Marshal’s office) put 75 vehicles on the road,” he said.
Josh Crawford, an engineer with the Corvallis Fire Department, said that even though these fires are devastating tragedies for the affected communities, they give Oregon firefighters experience they can take back to their own.
“I’ve been doing this 30 years, and I learned more in those two weeks on those fires than I did in all those years,” he said.