Into The Fire
Volunteer firefighters are at the front lines of today’s larger, more dangerous wildfires. Are we up for the job?
The call came in on July 5, 2018, at 12:31 pm: a vegetation fire in the vicinity of Klamathon Road, near the town of Hornbrook, California, just a few miles south of the Oregon border.
It was a hot, windy day, and bone-dry. Tim Thurner, fire chief for the Hornbook Fire Protection District, was heading to Yreka to have lunch with his wife, Sherri, when they got the tone-out.
“Three of us responded,” recalls Thurner. “We took our wildland engine and I was on water tender.” A CalFire engine and battalion were already on scene.
Their goal was to set up a fireline, or break, to keep the fire from heading northeast, toward town. But erratic winds pushed the fire toward them. Twice Thurner and his crew had to retreat. As the fire flashed over them, Sherri Thurner barely had time to pull the shield up over the open cab of the wildland rig to keep from being burned.
The fire jumped the dozer line and wet line like they weren’t even there. Then it hopped the Klamath River and roared toward Hornbrook.
Within a few hours, disturbing images were blowing up on social media, showing flames engulfing the slopes on either side of Interstate 5. By 3:16 pm, the entire community of Hornbrook was under evacuation orders; by 8:30, the fire had spread over 5,000 acres and I-5 was closed from Yreka to Ashland.
Just over the border in Oregon, we watched and waited anxiously. My husband Brint and I live in the Greensprings, the mountain community strung along Highway 66, about 20 miles southeast of Ashland. We are both active members of Greensprings Fire and Rescue, our all-volunteer fire department. We’d worked several small wildfires over the past three summers, but had never confronted a quickly growing conflagration like this.
Not that we would be engaging the fire front directly. Our fire chief, Gene Davies, had prepped us for our likely tasks: protecting structures and putting out spot fires, if deemed safe, and helping residents evacuate.
Several of us gathered at firefighter Jeff Scranton’s hillside home, where we could keep our eyes on the column of smoke behind Pilot Rock. We all shared the same fear: that the fire would crest the ridge and start moving downhill toward our community.
Bigger, Badder Fires
Chetco Bar, Klamathon, Klondike. Oregon Gulch. Camp and Carr. Anyone who lives in our region has borne witness to large destructive wildfires and endured weeks of smoky summer skies that snuff out outdoor recreation, kill business, and even run people out of the region for good.
If climate change predictions are accurate, more intense and more frequent wildfires are part of the new normal. Already, CalFire officials are warning that California no longer has a distinct fire season; the deadly Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise, started on November 8, 2018. In Oregon, fire season is starting earlier and lasting longer, says Dave Larson, Southwest Oregon district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF).
Whether sparked by lightning or humans, the formula for large, intense fires is pretty simple: high temperatures, low humidity, and fuel.
“It really comes down to when it stops raining, when it starts again, and how many 100-degree temperature streaks you have during that time,” says Larson. In 2017, temperatures in the West hovered above normal in July but broke records in August. July 2018 was the hottest on record in California; 2018 was also California’s deadliest fire season and Oregon’s most expensive.
Late wet springs produce lush vegetation that fades to gold by July. The forest floor crackles like corn flakes. Temperatures climb. Energy builds. Lightning strikes. Every new fire carries the potential of becoming another Klamathon.
Responding to these large fires requires coordination among multiple agencies, heavy machinery, tankers and helicopters, and thousands of personnel. Crews fly in from out of the state, sometimes from places as far flung as Australia and New Zealand.
But before a grass fire blows up into a Klamathon, rural agencies like Hornbrook and Greensprings are there. Often our actions make the difference between a small incident and a conflagration. According to the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, small and rural communities rely almost entirely on volunteers.
Yet at a time when they may be needed more than ever, rural agencies are facing dwindling rosters and shrinking budgets.
The reasons for the decline are myriad. Rural communities are shrinking—and aging. People have less flexibility, less time, and perhaps, less motivation to volunteer. At the same time, training requirements are more rigorous and departments field more calls, most of them medical emergencies. The NFPA estimates that call volumes have tripled over the past 30 years.
Steve Avgeris, fire chief for Colestin Rural Fire District, which straddles 17 square miles on the Oregon/California border, has seen his roster dwindle from 28 to 14 since the agency’s inception. In the last five years, the average age of his volunteers has crept up from 53.7 to 60. Both Thurner and Avgeris report trouble recruiting new volunteers, especially younger people.
Avgeris says his district, once a farming and ranching community, isn’t as stable today. People come and go. In the case of young people, they mostly go.
“There’s no school, no industry, no jobs,” says Avgeris, who grew up in the Colestin Valley. “It’s a long way to commute, and the roads are difficult in winter.”
But recruitment “is not a California or Oregon problem,” says Dick Brown, a longtime volunteer firefighter who represents California on the National Volunteer Fire Council. “It’s getting more and more difficult everywhere.”
Even as older volunteers age out, the young people who are drawn to volunteer may use the experience as a stepping-stone to professional firefighting. Some agencies even help cover the expenses of Fire Academy and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) training.
“A rookie firefighter/EMT can make in the $75,000-80,000 range in a metropolitan fire department,” says Brown, who volunteers for the Calaveras Consolidated Fire Protection District. “In contrast, our captain makes $15 an hour.”
It’s hard to blame young people for wanting to get paid for their work, especially given the amount of training required. Technically, volunteers are supposed to train to the minimum level of career firefighters. But, Brown admits, fire chiefs at volunteer agencies must balance that requirement while respecting volunteers’ time.
“I used to require Firefighter I, but I lost half my volunteers,” says Avgeris. Instead, chiefs must find ways to get their volunteers the training they need. Both Colestin and Hornbrook train with CalFire regularly.
Then there’s the danger, which seems to be growing. After pondering frightening images of crown fires and neighborhoods reduced to ashes, are potential volunteers deciding it’s just not worth it?
On a Shoestring
I pull the tabs, and the cube of green plastic in my hands unfurls. I grab each end and shake it until it billows. Then I step inside and drop to the ground.
It’s March. With snow still on the ground, it’s hard to imagine the Red Flag conditions of late July; nevertheless, we’re practicing deploying our fire shelters, which are individual foil tents we can use to protect ourselves if we ever get caught in a fire.
You don’t even want to use one. But you practice, just in case, and you always carry your fire shelter with you when working a wildland fire.
The practice shelter is made of plastic, but the real thing consists of woven fiberglass and silica sandwiched between layers of sturdy aluminum foil. A single fire shelter costs about $400. Equipping one wildland firefighter with a Nomex shirt, brush pants, boots, helmet, shroud, pack, and fire shelter costs at least $1000. A new Type I engine can easily cost half a million dollars. Yet some rural agencies run on budgets in the range of $10,000 to $15,000 per year, says Brown.
According to Thurner, Hornbrook’s annual budget is just $16,000 to $17,000. The lion’s share comes from property taxes and reimbursement from the state for working fires over three hours. The community isn’t large enough to support fundraisers, says Thurner. Besides, the Grange hall burned down during the Klamathon fire last summer.
The contrast between a shiny new multi-bay firehouse in a large suburban or urban community and most modest rural firehouses is almost laughable. According to Thurner, the Hornbrook firehouse is “basically a pole barn with a dirt floor.” The building was finally outfitted with electric doors and a heating system last year, which allows them to keep their rigs in service during winter.
Rural agencies have to stretch every dollar, relying on older equipment and scoring apparatus from military surplus and auctions. Chief Davies acquired 8601, our Type I structure engine, from the City of Medford, shortly after the department formed as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. For a time, Davies kept the engine in his front yard, which served as the station.
Eventually, Greensprings formed a fire district and built a proper firehouse, but we still do not collect taxes. Instead, our funding comes from voluntary memberships, private donations, and fundraisers. We’re all volunteers, even Chief Davies.
We’re lucky to have a fire chief who’s adept at writing grants. Davies estimates he’s secured about $200,000 over the years, including several Volunteer Fire Assistance grants. Available through the USDA and administered through states, VFA grants require a 50:50 match; however, the matching funds can be in-kind donations, including volunteer training hours, which are compensated at a rate of $15 per hour. Davies used last year’s award, which was just under $10,000, to purchase 3000-gallon portable tanks, hose reels, truck batteries, fittings, and foam concentrate.
Wanted: Volunteer Heroes
It’s dangerous, demanding, and it doesn’t pay: so why do it? For some, volunteering is a way to get involved in the community, but often there’s a “conversion experience.” For the Thurners, it was losing their home in the 2015 Valley Fire, which destroyed 2000 buildings and killed four people in Lake County. They moved to Siskiyou County to start over. Today, Tim Thurner is fire chief, and Sherri Thurner is a licensed EMT.
For Brint and me, it was watching the pyrocumulonimbus cloud build directly over the Greensprings as the Oregon Gulch Fire exploded. It was 2014, and we were in escrow on our property.
For Ben Pellow, one of our newest (and youngest) recruits, it was Klamathon. Ben and his wife Rachel had moved to southern Oregon from Oakland, where they had an urban farm. Their awareness of their new community’s volunteer fire department was “near zero.”
“Suddenly, giant bundles of smoldering pine needles were falling on our house,” recalls Pellow. “We felt powerless to do anything.”
Pellow, who’s 35, heads a Bay Area software team and works from home most of the time. Though he started volunteering so he could feel more prepared in the event of fire, he “stayed for the community,” he says.
When it sticks, it sticks. According to the NFPA, 42 percent of volunteer firefighters have 10 or more years under their belts. Avgeris says several of his firefighters have been volunteering for 25 years or more. He worries that as his experienced volunteers age out, the department will suffer.
“You can’t teach experience. Our task is to keep people in it long enough so they can gain it,” says Avgeris.
Avgeris fought his first fire with a shovel when he was six years old. On that first frightening night of the Klamathon Fire, he watched the fire coming over Bailey Hill “like a freight train.”
“We were all under evacuation orders, but a lot of people didn’t leave,” Avgeris recalls. “It was complete chaos. All of our resources were deployed doing structure protection.”
At 7:45 pm, just as the fire was cresting Bailey Hill, Avgeris noticed the wind shift to the west.
He saw his chance. His D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer was parked at Hilt, so he called his son and son-in-law; they had another machine. He was determined the valley wouldn’t burn.
“We built three-and-a-half miles of Cat line and literally stopped the fire,” he says. Avgeris pulled the rest of his crew off structure protection and had them hold the line, along with a CalFire strike team.
In the days that followed, nearly 3,000 personnel were called in to contain Klamathon. Thurner and his crew concentrated on supplying water to CalFire, which had set up a massive, three-mile hose line from a ridge nearly down to I-5, then moved to supplying residents who weren’t allowed to leave their homes with food and water. Though the fire destroyed 35 homes and expanded to nearly 38,000 acres, both Colestin and the Greensprings were spared.
Rural volunteer firefighters don’t just fight wildfires. We also respond to medical calls, motor vehicle accidents, and structure fires, and we must be equipped and trained for all of these incidents.
“Traditionally, volunteer firefighters have to do everything, but this doesn’t always work,” says Lance Lighty, interim chief for Williams Fire & Rescue in Oregon’s Applegate Valley. Faced with a volunteer roster of just two, Lighty realized he needed to do something. The board posted signs and banners, and Lighty turned monthly safety meetings into recruitment opportunities.
He offered distinct roles for volunteers who don’t necessarily want to fight fires. It worked: Lighty has a dozen new recruits of all ages, including several women. Most are training to become Emergency Medical Responders (EMRs). Community members can also opt to serve on the Williams Fire Department Support Group, which mobilizes during large incidents, delivering food and supplies to firefighters and helping the community. (Fire Corps, a national initiative spearheaded by the National Volunteer Fire Council, offers a similar model, where members can take some of the burden off the fire department by taking on non-emergency roles.)
Lighty is planning to institute a new schedule once his new volunteers have completed EMR training. A paid firefighter will staff the station during the day, and two volunteers will be on call in the evening. One will keep the medical rig at their house; this way, if a call comes in, they don’t have to drive to the station first, potentially reducing response times by five or 10 minutes or more.
While this schedule might work for Williams—a tax-based district which also uses an operational levy to pay its fire chief—it’s not a solution for every agency. Avgeris says he tried going to a more structured schedule, but it didn’t last. His firefighters, like ours, are on call 24/7. We all respond as often as we can, but I can count on one hand the number of calls where Chief Davies wasn’t there.
Because small departments are built from the ground up, it can be hard to let go. Avgeris has served as the one and only fire chief for Colestin RFPD. Now 67 and in his 37th year as chief, Avgeris knows he needs to retire, but he doesn’t want to step down until he’s confident the department can carry on without him.
“It’s the toughest job I’ve ever had,” he says. “You give up going to the coast with your family on the weekend during fire season. But it’s been a good experience. I’ve learned a lot.”
The learning curve can be steep and frustrating. I spent my first year puzzling over pumps and fittings and simply figuring out where everything goes. But there comes a time when it starts to click.
Pellow has been volunteering for been less than a year, but a recent fire showed him how far he’s come since Klamathon.
“I sprang into action, and I got to feel powerful” he says. “[Volunteering] has transformed how I feel, and how I approach these incidents.”
Williams, Colestin, Hornbrook, Greensprings: they’re not as much towns as aggregations of rural residences, in a region with a dry forest climate, summer drought and a large wildland-urban interface.
Williams is typical of many rural communities in southwest Oregon, says Lighty.
“We have houses up roads that have overhanging trees and heavy brush, backed up into BLM land which is not thinned,” he says.
Williams has been identified as the thirteenth Oregon community most at risk to wildfire in a recent report commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Regional Office. Merlin, Medford, Eagle Point, Grants Pass, Ashland, Cave Junction, Wimer, Gold Hill, Talent, and Central Point also made the top 20.
After the Camp Fire destroyed Paradise, a group of community members in Williams formed the Williams Fire Safety Group. They are applying for grants and doing what they can to make Williams a “Firewise” community, reducing the risk of wildfire by creating defensible space around structures.
“But it takes time,” Lighty warns. “This is not a 30-day project; it’s a five to 10-year project with maintenance it between.”
Greensprings also participates in Firewise, which is hosted by the NFPA. We have a school, a church, the firehouse, and the Green Springs Inn, but most of the community consists of rural residences tucked into the woods along Highway 66. We lie within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, surrounded by public land and privately owned timberland.
“People talk about the wildland-
urban interface, where urban or suburban development encroaches on wildland,” says Davies. “But what we have up here is really a different model.”
Davies used to think that our higher elevation left us at lower risk than communities in the valleys, but ever since the Oregon Gulch Fire, he’s been concerned about the possibility of a large catastrophic fire in the Greensprings.
Oregon Gulch started on July 30, 2014, when a lighting strike ignited a fire in logged-over private timberland off of Copco Road, in the far southeast corner of Jackson County. It was a landscape crowded with young Ponderosa Pines, with ladder fuels all the way to the ground and slash piles “as big as apartment buildings.”
Davies, Captain Phil Newby, and ODF Wildland Fire Supervisor Tyler McCarty were the first to respond. Strong, erratic winds blew smoke everywhere, obscuring the source of the fire. Worse, the terrain was relatively flat, so it was hard to get a good vantage point. More personnel arrived, and they deployed a Porta-tank and set about establishing an anchor point—a relatively safe place from which to start fighting the fire and keep it from spreading.
“That’s when things got really weird,” says Davies. Fine embers rained around them, igniting spot fires wherever they touched down. Putting them out was a futile game of Whack-A-Mole. McCarty, acting on intelligence from the aircraft, gave them the order to evacuate the area. They managed to pull their hoses and throw them in the Porta-tank before retreating toward Highway 66.
“Then it just blew up,” says Davies. “I’ll never forget standing on the ground close to the edge of a smoke column that must have been 30,000 feet tall.”
As they fell back, they met fleeing residents. Davies called dispatch to initiate an evacuation order for Copco Road. Everyone retreated to Fall Creek ranch.
By the next day, the fire had ballooned over 11,000 acres, eventually topping out at 32,000. Though a few structures on Copco Road burned, Oregon Gulch had a happy ending, thanks to winds that moved the fire east rather than west. But for Davies, the fire was a warning.
“We’ve had big fires in the Greensprings before, but this was the first one where we had to run away.” he says. “The fire behavior was unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”
Davies’ observation echoes those of firefighters across the West who report intense, unprecedented fire behavior, including record-breaking rates of spread and unstoppable “firenadoes.”
As of this writing, ODF has just declared the start of fire season. The Northwest Interagency Fire Center predicts above-normal conditions for “significant wildfire potential” in northern California and southwest Oregon for August and September.
It’s early Sunday morning in mid-August when our pagers go off: grass fire. Brint, Kyle Miller and I are first to arrive. My heart always races when we first pull up on scene. But in this case, the flames are low; the ground is flat, and there’s no wind. The fire is crawling slowly toward the road.
We’re here because someone decided a campfire at the height of fire season was a good idea. ODF has already used caution tape to flag off the scene of the crime, which includes empty liquor bottles and a makeshift fire ring that clearly didn’t do its job.
While we work with several different agencies, including Ashland Fire & Rescue, Mercy Flights, and Fire District 5, on wildland fires we work side-by-side with ODF. We lay a hose line, and Kyle and I work the fire while Brint keeps us supplied with water. An ODF dozer lines the fire while a small hand crew works the edges. It’s 2018; fires are blowing up all over southern Oregon, and they are short on personnel.
Mop-up is boring, tiring work. You trudge through a hot, ashy landscape of smoking vegetation and charred trunks, dragging heavy hoses. You spray water and the ground hisses and boils. You turn over rocks with your tool. Sometimes the ground caves in, revealing a smoldering root. You drag more hose. Smoke permeates your hair, your clothes, your nose. By the end of the day—and it can be 10, 12 hours or more—you’re exhausted and filthy.
At the same time, it feels good to be truly hungry, and to spend all day outside. Time moves in a different way. We take breaks and drink water, leaning against our packs in the shade. We joke around, tell stories.
“I get a lot of satisfaction in what we do,” says Pellow. “People are starved for community. There’s an undercurrent of something more important [in our work].”
Late in the afternoon, someone thinks to bring us sandwiches and cold drinks. Somehow, the gesture is more than enough thanks.
Juliet Grable is a freelance writer and volunteer firefighter for the Greensprings Rural Fire District.
- Here is a summary of the different agencies that respond to emergencies in southern Oregon and northern California. A large wildfire event requires coordination among multiple agencies.
- Municipal Fire Departments: Provide firefighting and emergency medical response to towns and municipalities.
- County Fire Districts: Provide firefighting and emergency medical response to a district within a specific county. For example, Jackson County District #3 covers 167 miles and includes four stations manned by career firefighters and four stations manned by volunteers.
- Rural Fire Protection Districts: A type of local government created to provide fire protection and emergency medical services to an unincorporated rural community. Many fire protection districts are served by all-volunteer fire departments.
- CalFire (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection): State agency responsible for fire protection on 31 million acres in California. CalFire also provides emergency services (including medical) within 36 of the state’s 58 counties.
- ODF (Oregon Department of Forestry): Oregon’s largest fire department, responsible for protecting 16 million acres of privately-owned forests and some public lands, including state-owned forests and BLM lands in the western part of the state.
- USDA Forest Service: Employs thousands of wildland firefighters every year, ranging from hand crews and Hotshots to engine crews, helitack crews, and smokejumpers. In Oregon and Washington, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cooperatively manage the states’ fire program, along with the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group.
- Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group: Interagency group formed to provide a coordinated approach to wildland fire management in Washington and Oregon. It includes five federal wildland fire agencies, two state forestry agencies, and two state fire marshal associations in Oregon and Washington.
- Mercy Flights: Non-profit air and ground ambulance. Mercy Flights provides ground ambulance services throughout Jackson County and air ambulance services to northern California and southern Oregon.
- American Medical Response (AMR): Private ambulance service which operates in Oregon’s Josephine County.