My husband, Brint, and I became volunteer firefighters in 2014, shortly after we moved to the Greensprings, a rural mountain community east of Ashland. A fire called Oregon Gulch had just burned more than 33,000 acres in the southeast corner of our district. Although a shift in the wind sent the flames away from the Greensprings, Oregon Gulch was a wake-up call: It made us understand what it meant to move to a community surrounded by forestland. We felt it was our responsibility to become firefighters.
When we joined the Greensprings Rural Fire District’s all-volunteer force, I thought it would be something fun we did every Monday night — a good way to get to know our new community. But being a volunteer firefighter is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The first year I felt like an incompetent fool most of the time. There’s so much to know: How to deploy a fire shelter, which could save your life if you’re ever caught in a wildfire. The correct way to roll up hoses. How to put a cervical collar on a patient with a possible neck injury. Radio protocol. Over time, my confidence grew — but no amount of training could mentally prepare us for an incident on the scale of the Almeda Fire.
Our district is rural, with homes spread far apart and tucked into the forest; structure fires are rare. But the Almeda Fire was a largely suburban fire, spreading through densely populated neighborhoods along Interstate 5. A wall of flame, fueled by a rare strong east wind that gained velocity as it funneled into the valley, raced up the creek drainage, devouring entire mobile home parks, neighborhoods and shopping districts.
When we were called in on the morning of Sept. 8, Kyle, Brint and I led in 8663, a converted military transport vehicle. Following behind were Chief Gene Davies in his command vehicle, our Type I fire engine and our water tender (essentially a water tank on wheels, equipped with a powerful pump). The freeway was empty, the median charred, guardrails twisted from heat. We could see remnant fires on either side and homesites turned to ash, nothing left but chimneys. It was a scene unlike any I’d ever encountered.
As the fire ripped up the valley, responders’ top priority was helping people evacuate, not saving buildings. The incident command system, which allows multiple agencies to plug in on a large incident, coordinated our efforts; we were under the command of a battalion chief from Grants Pass, with personnel from the Oregon Department of Forestry working alongside us. When we arrived on the scene, we were assigned to a division where the fire had already come through, leaving a checkerboard of charred fields, incinerated structures and intact homes. We focused on protecting structures that hadn’t yet burned and putting out spot fires that could blow up into something more.
An orange pall cloaked the horizon to the northwest. The towns of Talent and Phoenix were ablaze. But we couldn’t think about it. We had to concentrate on our piece of this awful puzzle. Spot fires, sparked by flying embers, were everywhere. All night we deployed hose, started the pump, sprayed water, rolled hose, climbed in and out of the rig. Whenever we ran out of water, we would drive to an intersection next to Bear Creek, where two members of my crew had parked the tender, and fill up. Over the course of our 24-plus-hour shift, we refilled our tank close to a dozen times.
Though exhausting, it helped to be busy, to not think of so many people’s lives reduced to smoking ruins. “I think we saved that one!” we would say when we had put out all the embers near a structure. At other times, it was disheartening work, cooling down foundations where homes had once been. “God---- wind!” one of my colleagues yelled during a break.
Near dawn, we pulled apart a smoldering fence in the yard near a still-standing house. We had just finished soaking it down when we glimpsed a bright orange blaze through the trees to the north. We called it in and rushed over. It turned out to be a van, fully engulfed, burning in an already blackened field. We quickly extinguished it and moved on to our next assignment. And so it went, hour after hour.
Meanwhile, new fires had erupted all over the state. On rare breaks, I tried not to think about the possibility of a new fire starting up at home. With these winds and tinder-dry fuels, a spark could quickly turn into a conflagration. Most of our equipment and personnel were here, down in the valley, a good 45 minutes away.
Late the next afternoon, we were finally relieved. The wind had relented somewhat, and our combined crews had stamped out most of the urgent spot fires in our division. We’d been working almost nonstop for more than 24 hours. All of our handheld radios were dead. Other first responders and firefighters would keep battling, including some from around the state and beyond, from Nevada, Idaho and Utah. The National Guard and firefighters from Ashland’s sister city in Guanajuato, Mexico, also arrived to help with the relief effort. The Almeda Fire was not fully contained until a week after it broke out. It destroyed at least 2,300 residences.
After that shift, I recently asked Brint, “If you knew what you know now, do you think we would have moved up here in 2014?” No,” he said, shaking his head. “No way.”
This saddened me: We love our community and our life here on the mountain. And it’s not clear there’s any place in the West where we can live free of wildfire risk; from Canada to Mexico, blazes are darkening the skies, and the fall months will worsen California’s Santa Ana winds. So we will keep training on Monday nights — as will thousands of firefighters across the West, trying our best to prepare for the next call, the next fire season.
On our way home, during the long, sober drive back up the mountain in our rig, I stared at the surrounding hills, carpeted with conifers. Many of them are dead or dying from drought stress and beetle infestation. I kept thinking I saw smoke. Too easily, I could picture all of it on fire.