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  • Special report: Ashland firefighters ever-ready

    The crews at Ashland Fire & Rescue have to be ready to rock at the drop of a hat
  • It's 7 o'clock on a smoky Monday night in Ashland, and the firefighters/paramedics of Shift C at Ashland Fire & Rescue's Station No. 1 have just flopped down on their recliners in the upstairs TV room to watch "NCIS."
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  • It's 7 o'clock on a smoky Monday night in Ashland, and the firefighters/paramedics of Shift C at Ashland Fire & Rescue's Station No. 1 have just flopped down on their recliners in the upstairs TV room to watch "NCIS."
    The five men and their battalion chief haven't slept since their shift began 24 hours ago, and they spent the night responding to eight medical emergencies. Time to flip up the leg rests and lean back to let their dinner of barbecue chicken and cheesy mashed potatoes digest.
    Then the alarm sounds.
    Over the intercom, a dispatcher gives the details: a single vehicle rollover at 521 Eagle Mill Road. It's north of town, about 10 minutes from the fire station at East Main Street and Siskiyou Boulevard.
    The men jump up and run to the pole, sliding down one by one to the engine bay.
    Tim Hegdahl, 29, and Trent Stoy, 47, race to ambulance 8831, throwing on their bright yellow jackets and helmets. Justin Foss, 34, Kelly Burns, 43, and Shannon Turner, 49, bolt to engine 8801. Within 90 seconds, both vehicles are out the bay door, their red lights flashing and sirens booming.
    Sporadic surges of adrenaline — in between training, dinner and episodes of "NCIS" — are part of the job.
    "Firefighting is definitely not boring or static," fire Chief John Karns says. "You never know what the next alarm will bring."
    The five men of Shift C represent 75 years of experience in firefighting combined. All are paramedics. All are married.
    Hegdahl, the youngest with more than five years' experience, grew up in Ashland, as did Turner, who has 17 years. Stoy, who hails from Nevada, has 20 years under his belt. Foss, originally a North Dakotan, has been a firefighter/paramedic for 10 years, and Burns, a former Alaskan, for 23.
    As they arrive at a curve on Eagle Mill, they discover a red Chevy pickup flipped on its top at the side of the road. A 65-year-old man hangs upside down, trapped by his seat belt. His head is covered in blood.
    Jackson County Fire District No. 5 crews from Talent have arrived already. They and the Ashland firefighters frantically crawl through the broken front window on their hands and knees, passing extrication tools such as spreaders and cutters back and forth.
    "He appears to be communicating with the guys," a District 5 firefighter says to another.
    The idling engines and shouts of the firefighters fill the night air, heavy with smoke from remote wildfires being fought by their brothers and sisters in yellow. For the Ashland men, their jobs are far more about responding to medical calls and vehicle crashes than battling blazes, but their fires over the past 10 years have been some of the most memorable in Ashland history: Callahan's Lodge in 2006. The Oak Knoll fire in 2010.
    The firefighters worry they may have to remove the pickup's door to free their patient, but they risk the entire vehicle collapsing. They must work fast. For all they know, they're dealing with a traumatic head injury that could take their patient's life at any moment.
    They decide to use the opening they have. Two men lie on their backs in the pickup and pass the patient through the broken window to three firefighters on the outside. They carefully place the man on the yellow stretcher, wrap a brace around his neck, and load him into the back of the ambulance.
    "I was on my way to dinner at my girlfriend's house," the patient says to Stoy, who is cleaning blood off the man's face and arms with alcohol swabs. His wounds aren't life-threatening.
    "Well, I think you're going to be a little late," Stoy jokes.
    "Code 1," Stoy yells to Hegdahl, who is driving the ambulance. No need for sirens or lights.
    Within 15 minutes, ambulance 8831 pulls into Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, where Stoy and Jon Gavin, firefighter/paramedic for District 5, hand off their patient to trauma nurses in red scrubs.
    Most firefighters would tell you the surges of adrenaline are one of the perks of the job. But after a full career as a firefighter, the adrenaline rush has its consequences. Heart attacks are one of the major causes of firefighter fatalities, Karns says.
    "It is generally felt that the unpredictable and spontaneous transition from a normal work environment to a dynamic emergency or fire scene puts considerable stress on the cardiovascular system," Karns says.
    It's something every firefighter/paramedic must adapt to, says Ashland Battalion Chief David Shepherd.
    "It's a great job with great benefits, and we can retire five years earlier than other employees in the retirement system," he says. "The reason is, though, that a lot of firefighters die fairly young."
    Not every call is a life-or-death emergency. But that's not what firefighting is about, Turner says. It's about making a difference.
    He recalls a Sunday morning when a young girl in a white dress ran out to her garage with a balloon in her hand. She tripped down the steps and split the front of her head open.
    "Head lacerations bleed a lot," Turner says.
    He and the other responding firefighters/paramedics found the girl bleeding profusely from her forehead. Both she and her mother were hysterical.
    "It was one of the most horrific things for them," he says. "But I managed to calm the mother down and bandage up the girl's head."
    Turner summoned a volunteer firefighter to retrieve a teddy bear from the ambulance.
    "Now you need to give him a really good name and a really good home," he told the girl.
    Soon the girl and her mother were laughing and playing games with the bear.
    "That's what I do," Turner says.
    But there are times when even the most heroic of efforts can't save the day.
    It's a Saturday afternoon in September 2006, and it's 100 degrees outside. Humidity: zero.
    Then the alarm sounds.
    A kitchen fire has been reported at Callahan's Lodge near the Siskiyou Summit, some 15 minutes away.
    By the time Turner and other Ashland crews arrive, the popular, 59-year-old lodge and restaurant are engulfed in flames.
    "We pulled off the freeway and before you even dropped into the parking lot, I had to put my hand over my face, even with the window rolled up, to block my face from the radiant heat the fire was giving off," Turner recalls.
    Attired in full bunker gear — trousers with overall straps attached, boots, jacket, helmet, air tank, flash hood and axes or hoses, weighing a combined 100 pounds — the men battle the wall of flame as it tears through the roof and into the sky.
    A helicopter that happens to be in the area training with a bucket dumps water, but it turns to steam in the heat.
    The firefighters' biggest concern is the propane tank that would have leveled the entire area if the fire reached it, Turner says.
    Two men sit 20 feet away from the potential bomb, keeping it cool and the flames at bay.
    "We lost the lodge, but we didn't lose anything else," Turner says.
    Aug. 24, 2010. Nothing could have prepared crews at Ashland Fire & Rescue that morning for what lay ahead. By day's end, 11 houses would be destroyed in Ashland's worst fire in at least a century.
    Battalion Chief Shepherd is filling in for two hours for another battalion chief who's at a doctor's appointment.
    Then the alarm sounds.
    Grass fire on Washington Street.
    "We were driving on Siskiyou Boulevard, not even halfway across town, and we saw white columns of smoke coming from the west side of the freeway," he says. "I called for a second alarm."
    The intense winds and dry vegetation send the fire racing through fields, threatening four businesses.
    "I needed to position my second-alarm engines, so I drove down Washington Street, but there was a wall of flame shooting across the road," Shepherd recalls.
    He can't get around the fire to see where to position new crews.
    "The wind finally let up and the flames shot vertically, so I was able to drive through," he says. "I made sure I had my windows up, though."
    Within minutes, the city's emergency hotline is bombarded by callers saying the fire has leapt Interstate 5 and is approaching homes near Oak Knoll Drive.
    "So I sent an engine from District 5 near Emigrant Lake to check on that, and sure enough, the fire had taken over a gully that backs into the homes," Shepherd says.
    "Everything was so chaotic and confusing because we had so many calls about different areas where the fire was coming from."
    Within 20 minutes after the first home catches fire, 11 houses are consumed by the flames. Some 16 fire and police agencies converge on south Ashland to battle the raging fire. Crews find a house with a fire-resistant roof on Oak Knoll Drive and make their stand, preventing the fire's spread to other homes. Though damage was estimated to top $3 million, no lives were lost and no businesses burned.
    Firefighters/paramedics at Ashland Fire & Rescue make at least $52,344 a year and receive health, dental, life insurance and deferred-compensation benefits. Some on the outside wonder whether these well-paid firefighters just sit around between calls.
    "A lot of people think we are paid to sleep and wait for the next alarm," Burns says. "People need to realize we don't just sit around and play Xbox."
    Every morning, the firefighters/paramedics have a list of chores to complete when they're not responding to emergency calls.
    "We start by checking the vehicles in the bay to make sure they are properly equipped, fueled and ready to respond," Hegdahl says. Then they work out using the station's treadmills, bike and weights. With the kinds of risks they face — from transferring patients with meningitis to climbing roofs while fighting fires — they must stay healthy and strong.
    Over the past year, the firefighters/paramedics of Ashland Fire & Rescue have responded to 89 fire calls and 2,236 medical calls.
    Chief Karns says the department's call loads have increased — staffing levels have not.
    "We've had to change tactics and strategies to address the resource levels we're seeing," he says.
    The six men on-shift usually perform multiple tasks per call, which is different from other departments that have a full staff that specializes in one task per call.
    "When there is a fire, you go in and fight some, then you come out and you might go on the roof and cut a hole," Burns says. "You do all the jobs."
    When they're not fighting fires or responding to medical calls, the firefighters/paramedics are training.
    One morning earlier this month, the firefighters/paramedics of Shift C hop in ambulance 8831 and engine 8801 and venture over to the Greensprings dormitory at Southern Oregon University.
    In full, 100-pound bunker gear on a 75-degree day, the men practice basic protocol for a dorm fire at SOU.
    "They are required to perform 20 hours a month for fire training, plus approximately 8-12 hours per month for medical training," Karns says.
    Five men walk up four flights of stairs, beads of sweat dripping down their faces. One carries a blue, 30-pound hose to attach to the standpipe, which is a valve secured to the building on all four floors so firefighters can fasten their hoses to it in the case of a fire.
    Others do a routine check on each floor in case they have to clear residents from the building.
    "We have to practice so we're ready," Battalion Chief Shepherd says. "But I don't want to wear them out because they may have an emergency later today where they have to climb up a flight of stairs in full bunker gear again."
    Within 15 minutes, the men have everything cleared and prepared for firefighting.
    Then the alarms sounds.
    "Stroke victim," a dispatcher's voice says over Shepherd's radio.
    Turner and fellow firefighter/paramedic Robert Trask throw down their hose and run to ambulance 8831.
    Removing only their helmets and jackets, the two hop into the cab and drive off, their red lights flashing and sirens filling the quiet morning air.
    "It's not about saving lives," Turner says. "It's making every difference you can where you can. Even if it's something as simple as giving a hysterical little girl with a head laceration an old teddy bear to ease her pain."
    Reach Mail Tribune intern Amanda Barker at intern1@mailtribune.com or by phone at 541-776-4368.
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