By Laurelle Walsh
If you ask a volunteer firefighter to talk about their experiences of the last month, you may get a response like, “You mean, like talk about what we do?”
For it is, essentially, what they do, and what they have each prepared for in hundreds, or even thousands of hours of training. They walk calmly into fire when everyone else is running away from it.
“We don’t really think of it as that big a deal until we hear other people talk about it,” said District 6 firefighter Mark Crum.
Still, Crum concedes, the first week of the Carlton Complex Fire, which started from four separate lightning strikes on July 14, was the hardest. “We were out every day for long hours,” Crum said. “I couldn’t tell you which day was which.”
District 6 volunteers logged more than 1,600 hours fighting the Carlton Complex before the Aug. 1 Rising Eagle Road Fire, which added hundreds more, according to Winthrop Station Captain John Owen.
“Once state mobilization showed up,” on Wednesday the 16th, “we were trying to give volunteers eight hours off,” said Assistant Chief Cody Acord.
“Basically I would get home, wake the kids up so they could actually see me, get ready for the next day and then get some sleep,” Crum said. “You get the advantage of adrenaline to get you through it.”
“You can run on adrenaline for a long time,” said Owen, “but you get pretty beat down by the end.”
A team effort
Each engine officer, the most senior officer in a crew of two or more, is charged with looking out for their crew, making sure they stayed hydrated, get lunch and dinner and take a break when it is possible, Acord said. “We pay attention to the firefighters and what kinds of decisions they’re making.”
Those practices, combined with hundreds of hours of training each year, resulted in not a single injury among District 6 volunteers, “not a cut, not a blister, nothing that I’m aware of,” Acord said.
Structure defense was the district’s primary role during the Carlton Complex, a fire so intense that “nobody could really do anything on the ground in terms of stopping that fire,” District Chief Don Waller said.
Teams assigned to an engine or a tender did point protection around homes, removing fuels, digging fire breaks and setting up water lines. “We had every vehicle in the district out there,” Acord said.
Division chiefs in command cars scouted ahead of the engines, assessing what points the engines could drive up to and where to go next. “It was a move-quick environment,” Owen said.
“Firefighters got their assignments to defend this structure and then move on to the next one,” said Acord. “They are told, ‘If you can’t defend it, get out and go to the next one.’ It’s all about training.”
“The chiefs let us fight fire pretty aggressively,” said Crum. “They have confidence in us. … All the same, we’ve seen fire behavior like people rarely get to see. It’s reassuring to know the limits of what we can deal with.”
On the Rising Eagle Road Fire “it seemed like all we were doing was running,” firefighter Max Jones said. “It felt like a cross between anxiety and purpose. … Every time we lost a structure it was like losing a child. If you can’t save it it’s like it’s your fault.”
On the plus side, Jones also remembers working together with Owen and firefighter Jeremiah Fosness when they “parted the fire in half. We just pushed it around the house. I was just so happy. It was a success story and it worked several times,” she said.
The firefighters’ efforts have not gone unnoticed by the grateful public, whose “thank you firefighters” signs can be seen all over the valley posted at businesses, homes, and scrawled across car windows. And they have earned the notice and gratitude of the chiefs who are in charge of the district.
Chief Waller wrote last week on the Okanogan County Fire District 6 Facebook page: “I want to thank our 25 volunteer firefighters from District 6 who continue to fight this fire with everything they’ve got. I couldn’t be more proud of their hard work and dedication to saving lives and property often at the expense of sleep, food and their families.”
“You have to remember the families, the stress they are under with a loved one out fighting the fire and they are still dealing with issues at home,” said Owen. Even after the power went out, phone lines went down and cell service failed, families with scanners followed the firefighters’ movements on the radio.
“I was worrying about what I was saying on the radio because I knew they were listening,” Crum said.
Firefighter Bill McAdow said he was “pretty stressed out” when he heard that his mother had received an evacuation notice at her home near Brewster, but he was unable to get to her to help. “Her neighbors’ houses burned, but I didn’t find out for several days that her house had survived,” McAdow said.
McAdow, like most of the volunteers, was also trying to balance his day job — owner of Harmony House Interiors in Winthrop — with the desire to be out on the fire line. He closed his doors and “worked steady on the fire” for the first week, he said. After the power came back on, he went back to work for about a week and then went back out to fight the Rising Eagle Road Fire.
“I was closed for a week and a half; I’m definitely feeling the business effects now,” McAdow said.
Crum, IT specialist at Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, sent out communications to the co-op’s customers each morning, and then went out on the fire line. The second week he worked with the line crew getting power restored.
“Last Friday [Aug. 8] was my first day off since July 14,” Crum said. He also missed his daughter’s birthday and had to cancel a family vacation, he said.
Thirty-two-year fire veteran Jones said for her it is tricky to balance home life when both she and her husband, Jeff, are out fighting fires. “It’s especially hard when we’re not together,” she said.
Another stress is the knowledge that her own home may be in jeopardy when she’s out on the fire line. “When I was fighting Rising Eagle, I could see a big plume rising behind our house” on West Chewuch Road, she said. “I’m moving in a constant state of readiness.”
Jones admits the lingering stresses have gotten to her, and it’s still early in the fire season. “I’m trying to get rested up before the next round,” she said.
“Sometimes I have to get up at night and check out the window for fire,” she said. “It’s the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing at night.”