Twenty Rogue Valley firefighters who went to fight the massive wine-country blazes in California are back home — with no injuries.
They didn’t face any of the giant walls of flame so publicized on the news, but mostly did “house prep,” which means going into neighborhoods and cutting away brush or trees and leaving a safe zone around houses so neighborhoods wouldn't burn down.
Fire departments from all over the Rogue and Illinois valleys, including Medford, Ashland and Jackson County fire districts 3 and 5, drove south on Oct. 11 to the monster fires, which took down thousands of homes and killed at least 42 people.
They worked for a week, until cooler and moister conditions took over and hampered the conflagration that started Oct. 7, called the most lethal in California history.
“We prepped houses,” said Medford Assistant Fire Chief Justin Bates. “The fire had gone through there already. We got assigned to some neighborhoods. Each engine went in and prepped to make sure there were no hot spots. We mopped up fire around streets. There was no big flaming fire front coming in at us. We cut down trees that were burned.
“It was kind of spooky being in neighborhoods where no one was around. We talked to some ranchers who didn’t even evacuate.”
Ashland Battalion Chief Dana Sallee said they worked in the area around Napa, where the giant Atlas Peak fire was burning to the east.
“We talked to a lot of homeowners. Some people didn’t evacuate and were helping firefighters with structure prep and, if needed, evacuation,” he said. “Weather changed, and we started to have containment. All came home safe, no damage to vehicles. We learned a lot from the experience, which was different because it was California.
“But fire is the same no matter where it is. It’s the first time in my 27 years here that we had to go to California. The weather is getting drier and hotter. That’s for sure.”
Medford Fire Chief Brian Fish, who stayed in the Rogue Valley as communication nexus for all area fire teams, said, “It went really well. All the guys kept safe and were taken care of and were busy doing firefighting. Fortunately where they were did not have high winds, so we came home sooner than expected. We thought we’d be there a couple weeks.”
Fish said the absent firefighters didn’t slow the team here, but their duties were put off or handed to someone else to “backfill” their position, and “we have the resources to do that.”
Despite not being in the belly of the beast, firefighters experienced “a great learning process about how they do things in California,” said Bates. “Their system is really efficient. It was great going down there to see it. We worked with crews from Washington, Utah, even Australia, and got to see how other people do their jobs. It was real-world experience, a great opportunity.”
— John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.