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United nations: Canadians join fight

Gerry Trudeau calls himself the fire headhunter from the Yukon, the first to confront the flames and the first to take the blame if something goes wrong.

I'm responsible for the fire and the safety of everybody, said the firefighter from Pelly Crossing, just over the Canadian border from Alaska. If the fire escapes the initial attack line and if an accident happens, it comes down to me.

He stepped off a Boeing 737 at the Medford airport Friday night with 102 fellow Canadians carrying gear on his back and knowledge in his head that could save lives and keep the largest fire in the continental U.S. at bay. The five, 20-person crews were bused to a Gold Beach base camp to fight the Florence fire burning 26 miles southwest of Grants Pass.

I have to keep good track of every decision I make and why I make them, said Trudeau, pulling the tools of his trade from his waist pack ' a tape recorder small enough to fit in the palm of his hand and a fire diary where he records his, and the fire's, every move.

He packs weather-watching equipment and communication antennae on his back and he carries a radio and global positioning system in his vest.

If we're out in the open, we can follow the column of smoke, but once we get under the canopy, we rely on a compass and a GPS, Trudeau said. A paramedic and volunteer fire chief, Trudeau gave up a Caribbean vacation with his wife ' the town's librarian, school secretary and ambulance service coordinator ' to take a job 2,500 miles away.

The Canadians who arrived Friday night are among 367 from six different fire fighting agencies in Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories arriving this week in the Rogue Valley.

The U.S. government asked the Canadians help fight the 331,375-acre Florence fire that's threatening western Josephine County. Some 5,434 people from across the country are battling the blaze.

I'm looking forward to seeing how things work here and learning the different environment of the fire, said Jennifer Platz, a FireRanger from Edmonton, who earned an arts and forestry university degree. She fights fires in the summer and skis in the winter.

Don Sullivan welcomes the work, despite breathing smoke and ash for 12 hours a days in a constant danger zone of falling trees and unpredictable flames. The mill where the man from Hazelton, British Columbia, used to work closed.

That's what I love about this job is going away and the farther the better, said the crew leader, who once a led his team in a fast retreat in their trucks when a fire made an unexpected turn.

His crew got its name Rainmakers because the heavens seem to open whenever they show up, he said.

It's awesome being here, said Rainmaker Tricia Seinen, a carpenter and skier in the off season. We're going to make lots of money.

Canadians and Americans first joined forces against North American fires in 1988, when the Canadians asked the Americans for help, said Rick Strickland, Northwest Interagency Media representative from Edmonton. In 2000, the Americans asked the Canadians for help fighting fires in Montana.

When Uncle Sam called this time, Alberta was just mopping up the 545,600-acre House River Fire, Strickland said.

We have 2 to — feet of duff layer so to dig a hand line to the mineral soil is not feasible, said Strickland, explaining the different strategies. We use a water delivery system with pumps and sprinklers, even pumping water uphill. We have planes that we call Ducks that scoop up water from lakes and swamps. We mix it with foam to give the water longevity and create a kind of soapy substance. We drop retardant to steer the fire to a body of water. When the fire gets to a lake, it stops and then we work along the flanks. We're not always successful, but we do our best.

He hails from fire country, noting an Aug. 4, 1998, storm with 40,000 recorded lightning strikes that started 350 fires over the next 10 days.

But your values of risk are greater here, Strickland said. You have more communities and more people than we do.

There are also more people working this fire, said Yukon team leader Don Hutton, from Mayo, population 500. His crew includes firefighters from the Tutchone, Taan, and Trondek nations.

We just finished a 2,100 hectare (5,187-acre) fire in the Prince Albert National Park, said Hutton, who bought his wife an anniversary gift early knowing he would be in Oregon on the big day. We helped protect the second-largest white pelican breeding ground in the world at Lavawwee.

But this fire is bigger than most of us have seen, Hutton said. It's big by anybody's standards.

The U.S. government called in the Canadians when man-power started running low, said Marty O'Toole, fire information officer for the National Interagency Coordination Center at the Boise airport. The Canadian crews spent a day in Boise learning how to identify poison oak and scorpions before flying in to Medford.

Next week, 56 mid-level supervisors from New Zealand and Australia will arrive in Medford.

It will be four nations working together on the same fire, Strickland said.

Firefighters from Canada arrived Friday afternoon at the Medford airport to join in the fight against the 331,375-acre Florence fire. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven