Cannon Beach volunteer firefighter Jordan Spencer remembers watching the Eagle Creek Fire on TV last year, feeling frustrated as he watched the blaze ravage the Columbia River Gorge.
All he wanted to do is 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 to be deployed to fires around the state so far this summer. This summer alone, 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 being 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.
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 that he was slated to go and had a half hour to get ready, Savage wasn’t sure what to expect.
But when he showed up to the scene at 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 engage a wildfire directly.
Over the course of four days, the main task for the task force was to patrol for spot fires and protect homes before the fire would approach them by clearing out surrounding brush and wetting down yards and rooftops.
But during the night of Aug. 2, the taskforce 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 of the task forces 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 community you’re serving Savage said. In Dufur, much of what was being protected was farmland, and task force members were working often working side by side with ranchers.
“Getting to work with the ranchers was such a rewarding experience. 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 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 and in three weeks, said often what is more difficult is what is left behind at home. 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 any 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 departments are adjusting to a new reality. Every call 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 tourism, 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.
Departments have yet to face any issues answering emergency calls with personnel out, as they all have an interagency agreement to help each other cover areas during these times. But whether or not 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.”
Departments have also had to adjust how they budget as costs of conflgration continue to rise. While the state reimburses local departments for costs associated with the trip, local departments have to be ready to foot the bill ahead of time – some now even creating a line item in the budget to anticipate it. Some departments, like Gearhart, are still waiting on some portions of reimbursement from 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 was paid out to all 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 Clatsop County more prepared overall.
“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 spend training for until you’re out there.”