Whether it’s an inmate cook, a firefighter from Arizona or a staffer from Alaska, the camaraderie at the fire camps battling Southern Oregon’s wildland blazes is as thick as the smoke in the air.
“I just like helping the community,” said Edgar Quevedo, a 22-year-old Salem man who is a squad boss trainee. “They don’t see the horrors of what fires can do to nature.”
He pointed to all the tents, showers and eating areas that have been set up for thousands of firefighters, including his father. They both work for Lava River Forestry, working the night crew mop-up operation, where crews face choking smoke and hazardous conditions.
“You go out there, and you can’t see anything,” he said. “You’ve got to watch out for falling snags and rattlesnakes.”
Quevedo is working on the Garner complex, which was split into two fire operations Tuesday because a larger portion of the complex, the Taylor Creek fire at 26,950 acres, is threatening homes along the Rogue River.
The fire camps are both located in Merlin, but resources were being shifted to the Fleming Middle School on Monument Drive to concentrate more efforts on the Taylor Creek blaze.
Darren Bucich, on the structural task force guarding buildings threatened by the Taylor Creek fire, said his crew has been welcomed with open arms by area residents.
“We get a sense of relief from people when we come to protect somebody’s structures,” said Bucich, whose day job is fire chief for McKenzie Fire & Rescue in Lane County. “We’re trying to keep a low presence so we don’t freak people out.”
Along the roads around Merlin, local residents displayed signs thanking firefighters.
Up at 4:30 a.m., Bucich said he sticks to a routine every day, eating first, followed by a morning briefing and then off to scout out neighborhoods near the fire area along the Rogue River near Merlin.
Bucich’s fire crews do a surface preparation around structures, using leaf blowers to get rid of debris. Later, they go back in and trim trees and bushes to help make a structure more defensible.
Crews will even “walk” a fire around a house, burning vegetation carefully to create a buffer and cut down on the fuels.
They’ve gone in and moved goats, fed chickens and even watered gardens.
“I don’t know if people know what we’re willing to do to protect their houses,” Bucich said.
Even the 81 inmates at the Garner camp enjoy pitching in.
“It’s a good program for us inmates to get out and interact with people,” said Charles Gallardo, a 39-year-old from the Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem who is doing time for robbery.
His job is to help with cooking, cleaning and making sure the sprawling camp area is in good condition.
This is Gallardo’s second year at a fire camp and his fifth fire, giving him a taste of freedom. He said the view of the fire from camp is spectacular.
“It’s pretty wild actually,” he said. “In the early morning, you can see it glowing over the mountains.”
Another inmate, Skylar Seed, 33, who is serving a sentence for robbery at South Fork Forest Camp, gets up in the morning and spends six hours cooking for firefighters.
In his third season, Seed said he started out doing fire suppression.
With only a year left on his sentence, Seed said he wants to make sure he can take care of his family when he gets out and might get into firefighting.
“It’s something I’ve definitely thought about,” he said. “It could give me a good jump start.”
Skyler Lofgren, wildland fire supervisor from the Flagstaff Fire Department in Arizona, told his 22-member team to pay attention to escape routes and filled them in on what to expect with Taylor Creek, stressing they should be ready in case danger strikes.
He said he’s seen people from all over the country pitching in to deal with the fires.
Lofgren, who was working with others from the Southwest, said he doesn’t mind the hot, dry conditions that Southern Oregon offers.
“It’s part of the job,” Lofgren said. “We’re here to help out.”
Trevor Fulton, public information officer for the Taylor Creek fire, said he’s seen some crews from Florida and a laundry unit from Texas.
Fulton, who is from Alaska, said fire crews are gearing up to contain the Taylor Creek fire as the Garner complex is slowly being encircled by solid containment lines.
“This season is just getting started down here,” he said. “It has the potential to be the worst.”
More lightning strikes remain a very real possibility as the season progresses, with fire officials saying they need the weather to cooperate for next six weeks.
“We’re just trying to get a handle on what we’ve got now,” Fulton said.
He said more than 20 firefighters have suffered injuries, from a broken ankle to wasp stings. Many of the injuries are related to the hot weather, Fulton said.
Marcus Kauffman, public information officer with the incident management team for the Garner Complex, said winds from the north helped drive the Taylor Creek fire to the south. “It jumped our lines at least twice,” he said.
When firefighters get their morning briefing, they are warned to not get complacent about the fire, he said.
“They may have overlooked a hazard staring you right in the face,” Kauffman said.
The hazards include trees that could fall over after being weakened by the fire.
Firefighters are being assisted in their efforts by drones. Kauffman said one type of drone does infrared surveillance to detect hot spots, while another drops ping-pong-like balls that ignite to start backfires.
Kauffman said the containment line around the Garner complex is looking better as crews deepen it to an optimal 600 feet. “We’ve got the boot on the neck of this one,” he said.
But the Taylor Creek fire has become the priority, and it may be awhile before they gain the upper hand, he said.
“We’ve got at least another six weeks of these fires,” he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.