Beyond the Flames An insider's view of fire season

Fire season is officially over in Oregon. The fall rains have begun in earnest. It's time to look back at the untold stories from the 2017 season. It was my third year as a public information officer (PIO), where part of my job is to make images that tell the story of the fire -- to illustrate the actions intended to stop the flames' spread. But there's always more. Much more. The people, the moments and the sometimes crazy circumstances offer an intimate window into the lives of those who do the hard, dirty and dangerous work of fighting fire.

On the march. A hand crew from the Willamette National Forest leaves the Whitewater Fire camp with their gear and tools for a 12-hour day. The fire began in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness and required a three-mile hike that gained 1,800 feet in elevation just to reach the black. And then the real work began.

There and Back Again

I loaded my gear and slung it across my back. My trusty camera hanging by my side, I began the three-mile hike (and 1,800-foot elevation gain) into the Whitewater Fire. After the hustle and bustle of the incident command post, the quiet trail was a welcome relief. I climbed the smooth ribbon of dirt through towering old growth that gave way to stunted sub-alpine fir. The smell of smoke heightened my sense of anticipation; soon, I would reach the fire.

Crossing the threshold from green into black, I stepped into a world transformed by fire and shrouded in smoke. The trail cut across a steep hillside of blackened trees curiously devoid of understory. Firefighters swung hand tools at the rocky ground to build containment lines. Farther up the trail, a rocky knob rose from the sea of charred trees. I knew immediately that was the place to get the shot. I scrambled up 700 feet of tumbled boulders and out onto an expansive view. To my left, Mount Jefferson loomed above the smoke, to my right the layers of burnt forest. I composed my shots, snapped the shutter and shouted, "What's the best way off this rock pile?"

"There's no good way down. It's all steep, burning, or black," came the reply from the division supervisor. I knew the general direction of the trail and my literal route out of the woods. I picked my way down the rocks, through the still smoldering trees and, eventually, I spied the trail. Descending off trail, I was never "lost" but I felt a palpable sense of relief when my boots thudded gently once again on the trail. I radioed the division sup to let him know I'd made it safely through the black. I headed back down, excited to share what I'd captured and impressed with a system that enabled people to work in dangerous environments while managing to keep them safe.

Sentinel of the ashes. A division supervisor overlooks the destruction of the Whitewater Fire.
Whitewater Fire punches a column over Three Fingered Jack and the charred remains of B & B Fire from 2003.
Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers catch a ride out of the woods after the Whitewater Fire closed parts of the trail.

All in a Day's Work

Amphibious scooper planes were coming to Detroit Lake to douse the flames on the Whitewater Fire. The planes need a long open stretch of water to approach, fill on the go and climb out. Our orders were to inform the many boaters on the lake that the planes were coming and to make sure they got out of the way.

Pleasure boaters packed the marina and the lake's many side channels. People dressed in shorts and flip-flops asked about the fire as I set up information boards about the planes. A young officer from Marion County Sheriff's Marine Patrol kindly agreed to let me ride along in his boat as he and his colleague cleared a lane for the scoopers. I slipped a life jacket over my Nomex and we motored out to the far end of the lake.

We reached our position and sat bobbing lightly on the swells. Two scoopers appeared over the ridge, descending gracefully toward the lake. They skimmed over the water, rose up and banked toward the fire.

Images in hand, I was ready to call it good when my cell rang. The helicopter base manager told me the pilots encountered some turbulence where they made their first run. The pilots wanted to use the main body of the lake. Could I help get the lake cleared?

I conferred with the young deputy sheriff and we hatched a plan. We had the fastest boat so we took point while the other deputies cleared boaters from the lake's many long narrow "arms." We sped across the water, lights flashing, and motored up to each boat so I could tell them the lake was closed and to move back. We swept back and forth, slowly pushing a flotilla of speed boats, house boats, sail boats and jet skis back a safe distance.

Most of the boaters were openly curious about the scooper planes that still circled overhead. They seemed to accept the trade-off we offered: The main lake was closed, but they would get front-row seats to the airshow.

The helibase manager called again and asked that I radio Air Attack when the clearing operation was complete. Air Attack is like air traffic control for wildfire aircraft. They fly high above the fire and direct the other aircraft. It's a hectic adrenaline junkie kind of job.

"Whitewater Air Attack from Information Kauffman, we'll have the lake clear in 15 minutes," I said clearly.

"Copy that. Let us know when it's good to go."

When the last arm of the lake was cleared and all the boaters were safely corralled into a small section of the lake, I radioed back to Air Attack to let them know. We bobbed on the water in the late afternoon sun with dozens of other boaters until we heard the unmistakable throaty roar of aircraft. The scoopers circled once and dropped slowly down toward the blue water, their white hulls sending shimmering clouds of spray into the air as they skimmed across the surface. Bellies full, they slowly climbed out of the lake to drop their long-awaited cargo on the fire. Behind me, applause could be heard above the din.

Scooper plane on approach over Detroit Lake.
Boaters on Detroit Lake got front-row seats to the Whitewater Fire airshow.
Sikorsky S-61 and smoke-shrouded sun at the Jones Fire helibase in Oakridge, Ore.
The cockpit view of the Sikorsky S-61 on the Jones Fire.

A Tactical Pause

The solar eclipse occurred on August 21, 2017 but the fire teams in the "path of totality" had been dealing with it for weeks prior. For most folks, the eclipse was a once-in-a-generation celestial celebration, but for us it was a headache. The media pestered us with endless questions about how the fire would affect access to prime eclipse viewing spots. They never seemed satisfied with our answers.

On the day of the eclipse, I found myself on the Jones Fire near Lowell, Oregon. The incident commander had declared that everyone would take a one-hour "tactical pause" during the eclipse. Pulaskis down, aircraft grounded, the whole operation was told to just stop and take it in.

Usually the incident command post (ICP), the nerve center of the fire operation, hums with activity. However, leading up to the eclipse it was like a family picnic -- firefighters lounged on the grass, made popcorn, sat back and watched the show -- in perfect solidarity with millions of other fellow humans.

Members of the Jones Fire team taking a "tactical pause" during the solar eclipse.
The Jones Fire road guards demonstrating their solar eclipse viewing station. One day only!

Of Wildfires and Rodeos

Wildfires are emergencies and firefighters move with a determined sense of purpose. However, sometimes you get to where you are going and have to wait. And pass the time.

I drove to the woods to scout a location to bring a media escort the following day when I came across a group of firefighters staged with a bulldozer in a small landing. They were supporting a strike team of engines and were on standby -- in position and ready to go at a moment's notice.

The dozer operator was practicing his roping skills in the clearing.

Amazed. I had to ask, "Where did you learn to rope like that?"

"My first love is rodeo. I fight fires to pay for my rodeo habit," he replied. He explained that he lives in central Oregon and competes on the rodeo circuit which, apparently, is a money-losing proposition.

A dozer operator with serious roping skills.
Fire crews and a helicopter work to contain a wind-driven spot fire on the Jones Fire.
Smoke from the Jones Fire dwarfs a helicopter.
A helicopter crosses an angry orange sky on the Jones Fire.

Native Alaskans Travel Far to Fight Oregon Fires

Firefighting draws all sorts of people. It's a crazy quilt of agency employees, contractors, retirees and more. For some, their day job could not be more different, but regardless of background they are part of the multi-faceted firefighting community.

The Hooper Bay Native Alaskans brought their own unique traditions and background to the Jones Fire. A 20-person crew from a tiny fishing village in the Yukon Delta, the firefighters were almost all related -- brothers, cousins and uncles. With the exception of summer firefighting, the Hooper Bay crew led a subsistence lifestyle (hunting, fishing and gathering). Much like tribal culture, the skills and traditions of firefighting are passed down from one generation to the next. At the end of their first fire assignment, the veteran crew members paint the new members with ash from the fire to initiate them. When they get back home, their earnings are shared communally with other members of the village to help support the village as a whole.

A member of the Hooper Bay crew of native Alaskans tapes protective material on a historic structure threatened by the Jones Fire.
With the exception of firefighting, the Hooper Bay crew members lead a subsistence lifestyle in a small fishing village on Alaska's Yukon Delta.
Smoke from the Jones Fire did not prevent this rower from her morning routine.

Signs of Gratitude

Wildfires can sometimes bring out the best in people. What's more, they can temporarily bridge long-standing political divides. It's no secret that many rural residents hold negative views of the federal government. But when wildfire threatens their communities, residents often express their gratitude in creative and often touching ways. Handmade signs appeared along the roadside, young children lined up to wave at the fire crews, local residents donated food, fresh vegetables, and even a watercolor painting.

Abstract political ideas seem to matter less when faced with the reality of wildfire. In that environment, labels begin to lose their meaning. One old timer said it best: "I don't trust the government, but I trust you."

Despite not being invited, the community made sure the firefighters knew that they were welcome and appreciated. From cookies to fresh vegetables to handmade thank you cards, signs of gratitude were everywhere on the Jones Fire near Lowell, Oregon.

Words and pictures by Marcus Kauffman, Oregon Department of Forestry.

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