Grayback firefighting crews return to work, carrying memories of their 'guardian angels'

With smoke from the Northern California wildfires hanging over southwest Oregon, Grayback Forestry Inc. firefighters went back to work Monday.

"To not go back to work would be letting them down," said Jesse Russell, 25, of Cave Junction, before boarding a truck at Grayback's Merlin base.

"We need to finish out the season for them," he added.

He was referring to the nine people, including seven Grayback firefighters, killed in an Aug. 5 helicopter crash at the Buckhorn wildfire in the Iron 44 complex some 35 miles northwest of Redding. A pilot and a U.S. Forest Service aviation expert also died in the crash of the Carson Helicopter Inc. Sikorsky S-61 aircraft.

Since then, Grayback firefighters have stood down to grieve and regroup. While the firefighters are grateful for the memorial that drew some 3,500 people to the Jackson County fairgrounds Friday, Grayback president Mike Wheelock said fires continue to burn.

"The best tribute that our firefighters can give their fallen comrades is to go do the best job they can," he said in a prepared statement.

"They are well-trained and ready to go back to the lines," Wheelock said.

Russell and the other members of his 20-person crew headed out early Monday afternoon to battle lightning-caused wildfires in Jackson and Josephine counties. They were among 120 Grayback firefighters and eight engines returning to the fire lines on Monday from bases in Merlin, John Day and La Grande.

Two crews from Medford will have one more week off before returning to the seasonal battle. The fallen firefighters' crew was based in Medford.

"I feel great going back to work," said Russell, a 2001 Illinois Valley High School graduate in his fifth season as a Grayback firefighter. "I'm real comfortable going with the people I'm with. We will get through it."

While on the fires, they will rely on their training and experience, he said.

"Staying focused is essential to being safe out there," he said as he climbed into the truck. "We need to stay focused."

Grants Pass resident Mark Lauber, 21, in his fourth year of fighting fires for Grayback, agreed. While they will never forget the fallen firefighters, they still have a job to do, he noted.

"It's time for us to get back to work," said Lauber, originally from Nairobi, Kenya.

Crew boss Sean Hendrix, 38, of Cave Junction, indicated those who died in the crash would expect nothing less.

"This is what we do — we need to get back at it," said Hendrix, a 1988 Illinois Valley High School graduate who has 20 fire seasons under his belt.

Like the others, he felt going back to work would honor the fallen firefighters.

"They are ready to go," he said. "They are ready to focus on the task at hand."

Every firefighter she spoke with wanted to return to the fire lines, said Grayback spokeswoman Kelli Matthews.

"It's what they love," she said. "It's a testament to the bond they have with fellow firefighters. They said over and over that they each will have seven guardian angels on their shoulders."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at