Into the hot woods: Through the brown pall of a wildfire, a former firefighter clearly sees a renewed respect

There is a bright sky-blue building across the street from my clinic that I can see from my desk. It has blood-red garage doors and houses some less-frequently used fire trucks for the HRFD. The clinic has been busy, so I don’t spend a lot of time staring out the window, but the other day I looked up from a patient chart to find that the building had been repainted a leafy green. I would swear it had been blue just an hour earlier.

I’m usually delusional only when I believe my sons are both perfect angels, so I cleaned my glasses and looked again. It was still green. I looked away, then back again. Still green. I knocked my fist against the side of my head, tried crossing my eyes, nothing made any difference. The blue building had become green.

It wasn’t until I stepped outside that I noticed what else had changed color. The sky was overcast, but instead of gray the sky was a golden brown, and stepping further into the street I could see the source of the color, the near-mushroom cloud of smoke erupting from the Government Flats fire on the far side the of the hills to the east of town.

I had a patient come in earlier in the week, a seasonal wildfire fighter with a swollen ankle. He’d been out fighting this same fire when he’d stumbled across a hornets’ nest, and in his rapid descent down the slope he’d been working on he tripped and twisted his ankle on a downed log. I couldn’t find a fracture, but it was obvious he’d be working from the sidelines for a week or two as the sprain healed.

When I first moved to Dee some 15 years ago I was not yet so old nor so unfit, so I was quickly coerced by my new neighbors into joining the Dee Volunteer Fire Department. Aside from drowning campfires with a few buckets of water, I had zero experience and even less interest in fire fighting, but they needed some fresh blood. So I showed up for Tuesday drill night, the chief rummaged through the closet and came up with enough protective gear to call it good, and there I was, a firefighter.

But this is Dee we’re talking about, where fire-blight poses a far greater threat than actual fire. When I joined, there hadn’t been a significant house fire in at least 10 years, and there wasn’t another in the 10 years I was a volunteer. Our hearts were in the right place, but it was difficult to build enough enthusiasm to actually drill and train each week, so our Tuesday meetings were spent mostly holding coffee mugs and practicing our, umm, communication skills.

That isn’t to say our siren never went off. There were plenty of auto accidents at Milepost 10 on the Dee Highway. I always found it odd how many accidents happened at this spot, because it is one of the straightest stretches of the road, but I think it lures drivers into inattention. One afternoon our fire pagers beeped and the siren started wailing and dispatch ordered us to respond once again to this notorious spot. But it wasn’t yet another roll-over; it was an actual fire at the Winan’s mill that was threatening to spread into the surrounding forest, jump the highway, and potentially consume Middle Mountain.

I’d been a volunteer for a couple years by this point, and since there were only, like, three of us in the fire department, I had quickly and ignorantly risen to the number-two position. Our beloved fire chief was unavailable, so, for the first time ever, I was not only the first on scene but also the ranking officer.

If I’d known what to do, I might have done it.

“Dispatch, this is 702. Engine 71 on scene with two. 702 assuming command. Heavy smoke in the woods; stand by for size-up.”

As assistant fire chief and now first-time incident commander, it was my job to assess the situation, call for appropriate resources to control it, and assign appropriate subordinates to jobs such as firefighting, logistics, and communications. Instead, I walked straight into the woods in full protective turnouts to try to figure out where all this smoke was coming from.

As I stupidly stumbled through the underbrush, I came out at the mill site to find a huge pile of cut logs blazing nicely, like Paul Bunyan’s cook fire. I had a hand-held radio, but quickly lost touch with dispatch as I bumbled about trying to find my way back to the road.

Meanwhile, my subordinate captain had been busy finding appropriate access to the fire and calling in to dispatch to get help from neighboring fire departments and ODF. We had Parkdale coming from the south, Odell, Pine Grove and West Side from the north. ODF was on its way. All of these needed to be coordinated and assigned tasks.

Me? I was walking down the railroad tracks, sweating like a pig, blisters already forming from my knee-high rubber boots. When I finally made it to Iowa Drive, I practically fell into the arms of Odell’s assistant fire chief.

“Hey, where’ve you been? Dispatch has been pulling its hair out.”

“I kind of got lost,” I said.

The big man looked at me with as much sympathy as he could muster. “Would you like me to take command?”

“Hell no!” I shouted. “This is my frick’n fire! Get your own fire!”

Not really. What I said was, “Yes! Please! Thank you! I obviously don’t know what the heck I’m doing ...”

He was incredibly kind. “Hey, that’s all right,” he said, “We all have to start somewhere.”

Eventually, nearly all fires go out, either by themselves or with a little — or a lot of — help. Fortunately, in spite of my best efforts, this one was quickly contained and extinguished with the help of four volunteer fire departments and an Oregon Department of Forestry crew.

So the other day, when I was studying the mysterious color change of the building across the street, then staring at the huge billowing plume of golden smoke that had caused the blue to change to green, I started thinking about my own brush with fire, and how difficult fighting one can be.

While I couldn’t command putting out a blazing pile of logs, there are men and women all over our state managing forest fires in the tens of thousands of acres. They are constantly and expertly assessing, then reassessing current situations, weather forecasts, wind directions, terrain, available resources.

There are people arranging transportation, communications with the news media, food supplies, sleeping arrangements, payroll for thousands of firefighters. There are people ordering evacuations and organizations there to help house and feed the displaced.

And like my patient with the injured ankle, there are thousands of firefighters just like him out on the front line every day. They are fighting these monstrous and deadly blazes with their gloved hands wielding shovels and Pulaskis, each one with their own story of hornets’ nests stepped on and ankles twisted. And there are the brave and unlucky few whose friends and families will never get to hear those stories.

Fire can both literally and figuratively change our world. For me, this year’s crop of wildland fires changed the way I saw the building across the street, but for others they have meant a simple bee sting, or a twisted ankle, a burnt hand, a destroyed home, or the end of a young life.

I say “thank you” to all of them.

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