We Don't Need Another Forestry Technician* Hero (Part 1)In 2007 I stood near one of the crosses at Stand 5, the Spot Fire/Lunch Spot, of the Rattlesnake Fire Staff Ride on the Mendocino National Forest. The entire permanent fire organization from the Klamath National Forest participated in the staff ride as part of our first "Fire Week."
The Rattlesnake Fire is where 15 members of the New Tribes Missionary Fire Crew were overrun by the flames and died on July 9th, 1953. A co-worker and I looked at the interpretive sign remarking on how far one of the crew members ran before the fire overtook him. For me, it was reminiscent of Eric Hipke's epic charge to the top of the ridge on the South Canyon Fire – except Hipke survived.
As we talked, I heard a sound behind me. When I turned to see what it was, I saw a young man – one of our Klamath NF Apprentices – sobbing nearly uncontrollably. One of the Captains from the Klamath Hotshots had his hand on the young man's shoulder and consoled him. Through his choking sobs, he was saying, "I have always laughed off close calls.
We joked about having to run from fires. I never really thought about how close I've come to being hurt or killed. And it was cool and exciting, and I thought I was smart and a great fireman. And now I finally see how easily I could've made my wife a widow and my kid's without a dad. And that I don't want to die a hero."
I started crying and walked over to this young man and put my arm around him, "It's okay. You're okay. You're here. This is why we're all here; To learn. So this doesn't happen to us."
It is still happening.
I've started this essay numerous times since the helicopter crashed on the Mt Hood NF on August 25th – the helicopter manager and trainee are from my forest – but I couldn't land on a topic. I wanted to talk about fire fatalities. I wanted to talk about forestry technicians*. I wanted to talk about the mental health of those who fight fire. I wanted to talk about the dark realities of "heroism." Then after September 8th, I wanted to talk about the fires that roared through Western OR and WA, leaving tragedy in their collective wake. Each time I started to dive deep into thinking about which topic to focus on (I do a lot of writing in my head), I would feel overwhelmed and emotional. I had to just stop. I was in full compartmentalization mode for at least the first 14 days after the wind event that started on the 7th. It's the only way I could get through the long days of dealing with two large fires.
I had to focus on the work and task at hand and push everything else back into a dark corner. In my long journey into taking better care of my mental health, I know I will have to eventually light up that dark corner and deal with all of it. I must be getting there since I'm finally sitting down to write this.
Look, I know. shit happens.
Sometimes healthy-looking green trees fall. Sometimes the wind blows or shifts when no one, let alone meteorologists, expected it. Sometimes we do everything right, and bad stuff still happens. But when we do know the wind is going to blow, when we're well aware of snags and other hazards, when we know the inversion is going to lift, when it's obvious a structure is indefensible...when the "values" aren't' worth the risk, why are we still putting our forestry technicians in the way? And by "we," I mean Fire Staff/Chief Officers (like me), Agency Administrators, ICs, Division Supervisors, Module Leaders. "We" all own those decisions. And lastly, we're humans; we're fallible.
I was once a gung-ho hotshot with more bravado than experience. But my Supt and the Foreman did have the experience to manage the risks for the rest of us. When I questioned why we needed fresh drivers to come to get us after a 36-hour shift, the Supt bet me $20 I couldn't stay awake for the 30-minute drive from the fire to the hotel where we'd bed down. As hard as I fought it, I was asleep in less than five minutes.
The East Wind event that was forecast for Oregon and Washington starting on September 7th was spot on.
When the National Weather Service in Portland put into their forecast that it was a weather phenomenon that only happens two to four times a century and that it was a very dangerous situation, well, that got my attention.
While east wind events aren't unusual in Western OR, this one was forecasted to be historic due to the unusually high winds (gust up to 60 mph) and single-digit relative humidity. They warned us a few days ahead. We knew it was coming. My forest didn't have any active fires, but we knew that was likely to change.
Two nights before the forecasted winds, I sent an email to the fire folks here asking them to prepare themselves emotionally to walk away from homes that were likely to burn or already burning – homes in the communities where many of them grew up and still live; homes of their neighbors, co-workers, friends. I wanted to acknowledge how hard it is to do that, and I wanted them to think about it before they needed to do it so that they would decide to withdraw in time.
On the first night of the forecasted winds, Monday, I woke up once. Surprised at the lack of wind, "maybe they got it wrong," I thought as I fell back to sleep – my phone ringing at 0521 proved otherwise. It was our primary cooperator.
"Tell me about the fire you have up Williams Creek," he said. "This is the first I've heard about it," I said.
"Well, MODIS (satellite imagery) is showing you have a 500-acre fire." "Shit," I said, "I need to make some calls." There was no wind at my house; it was calm as could be. I called the Acting FMO (one of our AFMOs covering since the DFMO was out on assignment) and got no answer, so I left a voicemail. Next, I called the other AFMO who worked in the district where the reported fire was. He answered.
I told him about the fire report.
"There is no wind here at my house," I said. "Let me step outside," he answered. "I live between Roseburg and Glide (Glide is where the Ranger Station is), and it's calm here, too." The AFMO was getting a call from the acting DFMO I'd left a message with earlier, so we hung up. He soon called me back and said the wind was howling up the river. They were going to start calling the forestry technicians to gather up and head to the fire.
Before we hung up, I said, "There's no firefighting with this. Just get people out."
"Understood," he said. I trusted him completely.
And that's exactly what it was. Before long, I was on calls with one of the Deputy Sheriffs concurring with evacuation areas up the river. Soon another fire started near the forest boundary on BLM and private lands. Even with helicopters, that firefight quickly turned solely to evacuating residents and folks in campgrounds. The forestry technicians and others honked the engine horns, running sirens, emptying campgrounds, knocking on doors, and helping the elderly get to their vehicles. The Umpqua NF Type 4 IC trainee, born and raised just down the road, later said that at times she couldn't tell where she was because the once-prominent landmarks were either obscured by smoke and ash or already completely burned. They led many residents and recreationists to safety through the smoke and flames.
As devastating as it was to lose over 100 residences, no one died in our fires. Some of that was because ours happened in the light of day.
But a lot of that resulted from the Umpqua NF forestry technicians' actions, the firefighters with our key cooperators, and proactive efforts by county and local law enforcement.
Before the day was over, our Sheriff put the entire county, over 5,000 square miles, into a Level 1 (Ready!) evacuation in a proactive and gutsy move.
Later that day, we got another fire report, this one in the Mt Thielsen Wilderness near Diamond Lake. We had no resources to spare, and there were no immediate threats to people or homes. I told the AFMO, "We have to let that one go, Brian. We have homes burning down river and on the neighboring forests. We don't have a choice." He understood, but I know it was still hard for him. I called the Regional Duty Officer to let him know. He understood, too. We had few, if any, options.
That evening the two fires outside of Glide merged. As I stood in dispatch, the Type 3 IC reported over the radio that this combined fire, the Archie Creek Fire, was now 70,000 acres. He later told me he heard me in the background calmly ask,
"What the fuck did he just say?"
After a very long day and evening, I was finally asleep...until my phone buzzed a bit after midnight. It was a text from Brian, the AFMO at Diamond Lake. "Riva, are you still up?" I texted back, "yes," and he called me. "We have reports that the fire has pushed out of Thielsen and is about cross Highway 138. I have someone en-route now." Shit.
I should've seen that coming, and I didn't. We had folks in campgrounds, at the Diamond Lake Resort, and in the Diamond Lake summer homes. I completely dropped the ball on that one. Just because we didn't have any resources to put on it, I shouldn't have ignored it. I should've been thinking of the worst-case scenario(s), and I hadn't been. "Okay, let me know when he gets on scene." Shit. I got up and fired up my laptop to look at a map of the area. Brian texted me several minutes later. The fire had indeed crossed Highway 138, and a Level 3 Evacuation (Go!) had been ordered with the Sheriff's Office. FS folks started notifying the people camping, and they called the resort. I asked if Crater Lake National Park had been notified, and Brian said no. I told him I'd have our Center Manager notify their dispatch center. Brian was trying to have folks assist with evacuation and also try to get as many folks rested as he could because we'd need folks the next day. Well, later in the day, since it was already the "next day." I texted the Forest Supervisor to let her know and got a couple of hours of sleep at most.
As the east winds continued to blow into Wednesday, both fires continued to march. The Archie Fire pushed towards Glide, and a Level 3 Evacuation notice was ordered by the Sheriff that included Glide (and our North Umpqua Ranger Station), up Little River, including the Wolf Creek Job Corp Center. Thankfully no students were there...a COVID-19 silver lining.
The Diamond Lake Ranger Station, located at Toketee, is a large compound with several permanent FS homes. It is an old-school remote station where many employees live full-time year-round. One of the county Sheriff's deputies lives there as well as several employees of Pacific Power. Sandwiched between the two fires, we decided to err on the side of caution and evacuate everyone (it was not within the evacuation area from the night before) from there, too.
I'd remembered hearing about a situation a few days prior where 15 fire personnel had to deploy fire shelters after trying to defend a historic Forest Service structure on a forest in Southern CA. The structure burned to the ground, and two people ended up in the burn unit. I did not want the same thing to happen trying to defend either ranger station. Not that we wouldn't assess to see if we could safely defend them, but I wanted folks to very clearly understand that these buildings weren't worth anyone getting seriously injured or killed. On the road, I called my Deputy and asked her to get fire leadership on a conference call and have that very direct discussion. I wanted it to be very clear where we stood on it, and I wanted the information to go all the way down to the module leaders. I asked my boss to call each district ranger and ask them to have the same discussion.
I wanted them to verbalize it – I wanted their folks to hear it from them. No building was worth anyone getting hurt. Not one!
The next day the incident management team that had arrived to manage the Archie Fire used Umpqua NF forestry technicians to implement a burn-out operation around the old Steamboat work center where we had housing for our temps (they had been safely evacuated). They were able to safely and successfully complete the burn-out. I'm so proud of them, but I would be equally as proud if they'd withdrawn because it wasn't safe enough to implement the burnout.
All-told, over 100 residences were lost in the Archie Fire, none in the Thielsen Fire. No lives were lost, no serious injuries were incurred. But these were the homes of our community members, our friends, and some of our families. And it hurt.
Both ranger stations survived.
None of the forestry technicians or firefighters with our cooperators were injured.
I thought I could pack the "forestry technician" discussion into this one essay, but I cannot. It's just too "big" and too complicated. And I want to get it right, to do right by the folks out there risking their lives. Stay tuned for that, but in the meantime, go here for some great info on what a grassroots group is doing to try to turn the ocean liner.
*Technically, federal employees are not classified as Wildland Firefighters (a tiny segment of the federal workforce who are structural firefighters). According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal firefighter series (0081) excludes wildland firefighters. "Fire control, suppression, and related duties incidental to forestry or range management work."