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With more conflagration calls coming to Clatsop County, local fire departments adjust to a new reality

Four task forces have been sent since beginning of summer
By Brenna Visser

The Daily Astorian

Published on August 17, 2018 8:27AM

Last changed on August 17, 2018 8:57AM

Firefighters from Clatsop County keep a watchful eye on the Substation Fire near The Dalles in July.

Josh Como

Firefighters from Clatsop County keep a watchful eye on the Substation Fire near The Dalles in July.

From left, Josh Como, James Hutchinson and Lindsey Wolfe take a break while fighting the Memaloose 2 Fire in August.

Josh Como

From left, Josh Como, James Hutchinson and Lindsey Wolfe take a break while fighting the Memaloose 2 Fire in August.

Ron Britton, left, works in the smoky haze of the South Valley Fire in August.

Josh Como

Ron Britton, left, works in the smoky haze of the South Valley Fire in August.

Firefighters monitor the activity of the Substation Fire in July.

Josh Como

Firefighters monitor the activity of the Substation Fire in July.


Cannon Beach volunteer firefighter Jordan Spencer remembers watching the Eagle Creek Fire on TV last year, feeling frustrated as he saw the blaze ravage the Columbia River Gorge.

All he wanted to do was help.

So when Spencer got the call to respond to the South Valley Fire earlier this month, he was excited.

“It was my chance to do something,” he said.

Spencer was one of dozens of Clatsop County firefighters deployed to fires around the state this summer. So far, four task forces have been sent to help combat the Substation, South Valley and Memaloose 2 fires.

Before 2017, it was uncommon for a local firefighter to get called out to a fire outside the county. Last year was a record-setting year, with more than 50 firefighters sent to fight multiple fires in Oregon and California. Now, with three conflagration calls already under their belts before mid-August, this year is on pace to be just as busy.


‘It’s surreal’


The South Valley Fire in Dufur was Max Savage’s first fire outside of the county. When his name was called out at a drill practice and he had a half hour to get ready, Savage wasn’t sure what to expect.

But when he showed up to the scene about 1 a.m., he didn’t have to wonder long. The task force was immediately sent out to patrol, where Savage encountered a large spot fire and got his first chance to engage a wildfire directly.

Over the next four days, the main work for the task force was to patrol for spot fires and protect homes by clearing out surrounding brush and wetting down yards and rooftops.

But during the night of Aug. 2, the task force was sent out to a road that turned out to be one of the main fronts of the now-contained 20,000 acre fire. Spencer remembers all the firefighters falling silent, as everyone started to pull line and prepare for the flames creeping forward 200 yards away. Eventually, the wind shifted in their favor.

“We don’t normally end up right in front of the flame front,” Spencer said. “It’s a very surreal experience to have flames shooting up over the tree line at you.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of the job is getting to meet the people you are serving, Savage said. In Dufur, much of what was being protected was farmland, and firefighters were often working side by side with ranchers.

“They don’t have a bunch of rules and standards to follow like we do. They are just kind of winging it with their own equipment,” Savage said. “It was amazing to see them risk their own work trucks and lives to help out their neighbors.”

Though the days and nights are long, often ending only in a few hours of sleep in a tent, what makes going on trips difficult is rarely the firefighting itself.

For James Hutchinson, of the Gearhart Volunteer Fire Department, watching someone’s cash crop singe into black dust was often a humbling and somber experience.

“I remember on one fire someone came up to me and asked to use my phone to call home. Their phone wasn’t working and they needed to let someone know the farm was gone,” Hutchinson said. “In those moments you take a step into their shoes, and it can be hard. But you have to make it a motivation and remember you are there to help.”

Gearhart Fire Lt. Josh Como, who has been deployed three times, said leaving home can be difficult. Finding employers who are flexible enough to allow unplanned deployments, as well as balancing family dynamics, can be a challenge.

“Life goes on while you are out there,” Como said. “Everything is going on at home, plus the people you love are worrying about whether you’re OK. That’s why it’s important to take lots of photos to let them know you’re safe.”

But the challenges are overshadowed by what everyone agreed was the best part of the job: gratitude.

“You see these things happen on TV, but until you’re actually there, meeting the people you’re helping face to face … that kind of gratitude you can’t understand or see unless you’re there.”


A new reality


With conflagration calls on the rise, local fire departments are adjusting to a new reality. Every request from the state means a local chief is making a judgment call on whether the department can afford to lose personnel — often at the height of the summer tourism season, when first responders are the busiest.

“The biggest challenge is making sure that when we send crews out we’re making sure there’s enough crew to respond to our own emergencies,” Lewis and Clark Fire Chief Jeff Golightly said.

Fire departments have yet to face any issues answering emergency calls, as they all have an interagency agreement to help each other. But whether the department has enough people available is something Gearhart Fire Chief Bill Eddy always has on his mind.

“That’s always a concern with a volunteer department. In a volunteer department you have no way to backfill when people go,” Eddy said. “You just plan, train and prepare the best you can.”

Fire departments have also had to adjust how they budget as the costs of conflagration continues to rise. While the state reimburses local departments, local departments have to be ready to foot the bill ahead of time — some now even creating a line item in the budget in anticipation. Some departments, like Gearhart, are still waiting on some portions of reimbursement for work done at the California fires, and have had to request temporary general fund transfers to make it through.

Golightly estimates more than half a million dollars was paid out to Clatsop County departments last year.

While there may be some inconvenience, Cannon Beach Fire Chief Matt Benedict thinks the connections and skills volunteers bring back from these trips make the county more prepared.

“A lot of the citizens are thanking us for helping out, and offering to be there for us if we ever need help,” Benedict said. “I love getting to send people out. You don’t get to use all those skills you train for until you’re out there.”



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