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A firefighter's resilience

Carlos Velasquez fought a fire on the Arizona border overlooking the Grand Canyon and battled a Utah blaze along Interstate 15. Then he came home to the state leading the nation in burning acres.

This is much more dangerous in the sense of the timber is bigger and there are more possibilities of a tree falling on you, said Velasquez, a Central Point resident working at the Timbered Rock fire near Trail.

You don't always see what's happening up there, Velasquez said. There are big leaf maples growing along the edges of Elk Creek, and you can't see what you're getting into.

A timber cruiser for the Bureau of Land Management, Velasquez is working his 11th straight day fighting the fire that's about 38 miles wide and has threatened 150 homes in the Prospect, Trail and Shady Cove area. Velasquez is part of a team that operates Engine 586, a 400-gallon fire truck assigned to spot fires in the Elk Creek drainage. They douse flames using water from creeks, swimming pools or a 3,000-gallon water truck.

Every morning at 5:30, Velasquez reports to a meeting at Stewart State Park. He works on the fire line until about 7 p.m., goes home to eat dinner with his wife, Joan, and heads to bed early so he can be ready for the next day's grueling job.

I try to eat right and get decent sleep, he said. The fires could go for a good while.

A forester for most of the year, Velasquez has been battling blazes the past month with people who have college degrees in firefighting.

But whatever their background, they share the constant danger on the job.

You're not always 100 percent safe, Velasquez said. Trees have burned, but we don't know how much they've burned. There are snags, or dead trees, that are still upright. We always pay attention to what's going on around us. We heard several trees crash today and some crashed just directly across the road from where we were driving. Some of the terrain we drive up has a 70 to 80 percent grade. It's very steep so the trees are already leaning one way. When the fire hits them, it makes them weaker.

Fire season started July — for Velasquez, when he was part of a hand crew sent to a 40-acre blaze near St. George, Utah, at the Arizona and Nevada borders.

They flew us by helicopter right on top of the mountain and you could see the north edge of the Grand Canyon, Velasquez said.

They fought Southwest fires, including an Interstate 15 blaze in the juniper and sagebrush of Utah's Dixie National Forest, before coming home July 13. After one day of rest, Velasquez' crew was assigned to the Timbered Rock fire, caused by lightning July 12. More than a thousand firefighters are on the scene.

Oregon leads the nation with burned acreage so far this year, according to the National Fire News Web site, sponsored by the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise. Fires also have been burning in California, Arizona, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

Oregon was scheduled to get reinforcements Sunday from five Canadian firefighting crews and about 24 line operations managers, according to the National Fire News.

Last Monday the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to pay 75 percent of the state's firefighting costs on the Timbered Rock fire because it threatened 150 homes. FEMA also agreed to pay 75 percent of the state's cost on the Florence fire, which had threatened 160 homes in the Illinois Valley. FEMA earlier authorized federal funds for the Squire fire in the Applegate Valley.

Reach reporter Melissa Martin at 776-4497, or e-mail