A total of 20 firefighters from Ashland, Medford, two Jackson County fire districts and Illinois Valley in Josephine County gathered in Phoenix Wednesday morning before leaving at noon sharp in five fire trucks, headed for the Napa Valley area to battle giant conflagrations that have killed at least 18 and incinerated some 3,500 structures. The team expected to start work soon after their arrival Wednesday evening.

The team arrived in Napa Wednesday evening, near two big fire complexes. The biggest one in Northern California, the Atlas Peak fire, 42,000 acres, is a few miles east of Napa. Others are burning in the Sonoma Valley, just west of Napa Valley.

The strike team is prepared to battle or prevent blazes in urban neighborhoods, not in wildlands, said Deputy Chief Vince Lockett of Fire District 5 in Talent. Expressing confidence and pointing to extensive training and experience, he notes the crews are rallying at the Napa County Fairgrounds with tents and air mattresses, ready to spend up to two weeks on the job.

“This is a big deal, when California calls for help,” he says. Asked if the expedition will be scary, he said, “Yes. We are trained but have faced no experience like this. The Oak Knoll fire in Ashland (which destroyed 11 homes) was similar, but nothing compared to this.”

Ironically, new District 5 Fire Chief Charles Hanley is in the process of moving here from Santa Rosa, where his family is packing — some five blocks from the fire that wiped out swaths of homes in that city.

Hanley sped to their home in the early hours of the fire Monday morning and, in a phone interview, said everyone is safe and they are sheltering five friends and kin who were evacuated from their homes. He hasn’t been fighting the blaze but says he will if needed.

“It’s pretty devastating,” says Hanley, who fought fires in that area for more than 30 years. “Many friends and family have lost their homes. My kids lost their high school. We’re under heavy smoke here and the winds are supposed to pick up to 40 mph soon. I came to evacuate my family.”

Before departure, the strike team leader Deputy Chief Mike Hussey of Fire District 3 briefed firefighters from all stations, noting, “This fire is the first of its kind.” His group, which covers Jackson and Josephine Counties, will join nine other strike teams from around Oregon, representing 50 departments from 13 counties. Hussey's tasks include establishing interagency communication, coordinating reassignment to hot spots as needed and making sure teams avoid fatigue, which can be hazardous.

Medford Fire Chief Brian Fish will remain here as Fire Defense Board chief, serving as the liaison between the state of Oregon and all fire agencies in Jackson-Josephine Counties. He will get updates from Hussey on the scene.

Fish will limit the strike team to 14 days on site and is ready to rotate a new team in by car if needed.

“They are a very experienced crew and can take care of people,” says Fish. “We have the utmost confidence in them. That environment will be very different but they’re very close, operating together.”

Medford Deputy Chief Justin Bates said his people get called on fires all over Oregon but it’s “very rare to go out of state and California is a new experience. Everyone is super-excited to help the people there and to gain this experience.”

Ashland Firefighter Jennifer Hadden, one of four from her department on the strike team, said, “It feels good to know we’re able to send people and resources. They’ve got to be tapped and strapped and exhausted … No, we’re not scared. I used to fight a lot of big wildland fires. We hope to do some good. It’s a rapidly moving fire and it’s moving toward Rohnert Park, which is heavily populated. You can back-burn in the forest but not in a city.”

Battalion Chief Kelly Burns of Ashland Fire Department said, “We all want to go down there and help. Many of us know people down there who’ve lost homes and are being put up by others.”

Explaining tactics of fighting urban fires engulfing many homes, Burns said finding people and getting them to safety is always the main job, followed by protecting homes by clearing brush and other flammables around the home.

“I trust in the guys to have the right training, know how to stay safe and to make the right decisions to protect structures,” Burns said.

Burns fought the Oak Knoll fire and says, “Any time you get a chance to have an experience like that, you do it and you realize you are a student there. There’s only so much you can do when it becomes like a tsunami, a force of nature and there’s no amount of people or equipment that can stop it. You try to keep people safe, try to keep an 80-foot zone around you and sometimes, when winds are high, the flame front so big and visibility low, you have to get out of the way and let it go through.

“In the end, there’s no piece of property that’s worth a firefighter or human. We’ll work our tails off to save as much property as we can. You can rebuild, but you can’t replace a life."

The other two Ashland Fire & Rescue firefighters on the strike team are Tim Hegdahl and David Roselip.

Four Oregon Department of Forestry fire engines and their two-person crews went south to help Monday. Southwest and Klamath-Lake districts bordering California sent crews as part of mutual fire aid agreement. Two of the engines came from Grants Pass, one from Klamath Falls and one from Medford. A ninth ODF employee also went from Medford in a support role. The ODF teams will be put to use where the Northern California incident command deems they are needed most.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.