Imagine your phone ringing late at night with an urgent plea to drop everything and come help complete strangers far away. Imagine canceling all other plans and heading out — with no idea of how long you’ll be gone or exactly what dangers you may face.
Welcome to the world of Clatsop County firefighters.
This year has been exceptional for crews from Knappa to Cannon Beach who have answered the call and bravely headed off to battle blazes elsewhere in the state and in California.
As they have returned home, begun to regroup and get back to normal as the new year dawns, it’s timely to pause and applaud them for their courage and dedication.
This summer, crews from Seaside, Gearhart, Olney, Lewis & Clark, Cannon Beach, Warrenton and Knappa fire districts were first dispatched to fires throughout Oregon.
Throughout late August and early September, more than 50 from the region battled the Milli Fire in Sisters, the Chetco Bar Fire in Brookings and the Eagle Creek Fire in Multnomah County.
On returning, scarcely had they drawn breath and resumed normal family life back home on the North Coast when the Oregon Fire Marshal received an urgent request for assistance from California through a national state-to-state mutual aid system.
The call came late one night in mid-October. Remarkably, crews were mobilized and on their way down Interstate 5 the next day, heading to Santa Rosa, California, a city of more than 175,000. There they fought blazes on every side, south and east to Sonoma and Napa, one of 12 wildfires burning in eight counties. The fire killed 22, destroyed 7,000 homes and buildings, and damaged another 500. Damage totaled more than $1 billion in Santa Rosa alone.
The third deployment sent many of these and other Clatsop heroes back to California, where they spent at least 16 days fighting fires in Ventura County near Los Angeles in fires that destroyed nearly 200 homes and caused 200,000 to be evacuated.
Although 2015 was a busy year for such deployments, veteran fire leaders on the Coast cannot recall any year quite like this one.
In commending this outstanding commitment to helping their neighbors, there are others to thank, too.
Firstly, employers of fire volunteers know there is always the possibility their staff members may have opportunities to serve on the front lines in faraway places. That means they need a game plan on how to cover their jobs — because they may have to leave their regular workplace for prolonged periods with no definite end date.
Fire departments, and the cities or rural communities they protect, also have to make sure their primary role is covered, going deep into their bench to give additional on-call shifts and other opportunities to serve to those who are not selected to travel to trouble spots.
And families always bear the brunt of supporting first responders. Having loved ones away from home and potentially in harm’s way is stressful and worrisome. No one can properly imagine what that’s like unless they have faced that situation.
When the firefighters return, they can tell “war stories,” of course, but they also bring back valuable experience that they can share with others during drills and training opportunities.
Being neighborly has a cost. But it’s the right thing to do. We salute our region’s fire chiefs and the agencies that supervise them, for creating the climate in which Clatsop’s finest respond with skill and courage whenever that call comes and wherever it takes them.