A 19-year-old water truck driver was killed early Tuesday on the Big Windy Complex fire after his vehicle hit an embankment and overturned on Bear Camp Road, a mountainous route linking the Rogue Valley with the coast.
Jesse A. Trader of Albany died when the truck rolled and came to rest on its top on the road at milepost 10, Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson said.
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The driver had spent all night on the fire and was en route to hand off the truck keys to a replacement driver when the accident occurred, Gilbertson said.
Firefighters in vehicles immediately behind Trader stopped to help the injured driver, the sheriff said.
An advanced life support ambulance arrived within minutes and life flight was quickly launched, but efforts to save the driver were unsuccessful, Gilbertson said.
The cause of the accident, which happened around 7:20 a.m. near Soldier Camp, is under investigation.
The truck was owned by Ace Earthmoving and was being utilized by County Fire, a private Merlin company contracted to help fight the fire.
Gilbertson said that members of Trader's family owned County Fire and had employed him to battle the fires.
Calls to County Fire seeking comment Tuesday night were not returned.
Jim Whittington, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest National Incident Management Team, said he did not know what training, if any, Trader had received before he was tasked with driving the water truck after spending the previous night on the fire line.
Gilbertson speculated that the tight, winding roads in the area would have made it difficult to correct a large truck had it run off the road.
"We are looking at the weight of the truck as a possible factor," Gilbertson said.
The sheriff did not disclose whether Trader was wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash. He cited the ongoing investigation, which is being partially handled by an Oregon State Police crash reconstruction team.
Whittington took time during a press conference called Tuesday afternoon in Grants Pass to praise the work of the firefighters who witnessed the crash and jumped in to try and help Trader.
"They responded in a way that was immediate and professional," Whittington said. "They did everything you could ask for in this situation."
Trader's death came just months after he joined a community college firefighter training program and readied for his first fire season, The Associated Press reported.
Jesse Trader had a baseball scholarship to Western Oregon University but chose to enroll at Chemeketa Community College for its fire protection program instead, his mother told the AP Tuesday.
"This is what Jesse wanted to do with his life," said Gigi Trader of Albany.
Gov. John Kitzhaber said Oregonians owe a debt to Trader and others who put their life on the line to battle wildfires.
"Even at such a young age, he was already contributing mightily to his community, and we owe him our gratitude for his commitment to helping protect his fellow citizens," Kitzhaber said in a prepared statement.
"My prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time, and my thoughts are with all emergency responders on the front lines during this severe wildfire season," he added.
Trader's mother said his faith, and hers, helped her cope with the reality of his death just hours after getting a call from law enforcement, the AP reported.
"He was always willing to share his faith with others, he never got in any trouble," Gigi Trader said. "He was somebody who was going to be very successful."
Trader is the second fire crew member killed in Oregon this wildfire season. On Thursday, John Hammack, 58, was killed when a tree he was cutting down fell on him in a fire in the Deschutes National Forest.
Bear Camp Road is 50 miles of twisting, narrow highway linking Galice and Agness. As the shortest route from the Rogue Valley to the coast, it is heavily used by recreationists and as a shuttle route by those floating the whitewater on the Wild and Scenic stretch of the Rogue River during the summer.
The road has been closed to the public for the past week as firefighters use it to battle the 10,000-plus-acre Big Windy fire. The road is being used as a fire line to stop the blaze from spreading south.
About 37 miles of the road lies within national forest boundaries. Another 12 miles is on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.