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Firefighter gave tough news to the fire victims

One of the most difficult calls came from a woman inquiring about the status of her family's home.

"The lady called in from her vacation and asked, 'How's my house?' " Tim Johnson recalls. "I had to tell her that she had lost everything. Her home had burned."

Johnson, 67, a volunteer firefighter with the Applegate Fire District for the past nine years, recently returned from the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs, where 347 homes were destroyed and two people died.

He was one of the fire information officers assigned to the blaze that covered about 18,250 acres after it began June 23. Some 32,000 people were evacuated before the fire was contained two weeks ago.

Since summer 2007, Johnson, a former Army officer, California orange grower and public relations executive, has been working part-time each summer as a wildlands fire information officer on blazes from California to Alaska.

In addition, he is a recovering journalist who has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Southern California and a master's in the craft from the University of California at Los Angeles.

The retired word merchant also is chairman of the Rogue Community College board and a volunteer chaplain at Rogue Valley Medical Center.

He tapped all his experiences to deal with the tragedy of the Waldo Canyon fire. "Sadly, the homes that were lost all burned in a two-hour period," he says. "The winds were almost hurricane force. You can't fight a firestorm.

"The worst thing, of course, was the people who lost everything," he adds. "It will be years before their kids get over it. All the public attention and interest goes away in six months, but for them, the fire was yesterday. A lot of places cooked to the ground."

With 32,000 evacuated, the calls coming into the fire information center never stopped.

"People were eager to return, even those who knew they lost their homes," he says. "Others who didn't live near Colorado Springs wanted to know about the smoke and the fire."

Not all the calls were life-and-death issues.

Some of those whose homes survived were worried about things such as feeding their tropical fish, he says.

"One guy who called just wanted to know if it was too smoky to play golf," he says.

Then there was the frazzled woman who was at wit's end and needed some advice. Apparently, her mother-in-law had been complaining nonstop about the smoke and the fire.

"I told her to get her an airplane ticket," he says.

And let's not forget the woman whose good friends were forced to evacuate. She was left dog-sitting a Great Dane. Picture a Shetland pony with large fangs.

"She wanted to know where the nearest animal shelter was," he says.

Finally, there was the pesky media calling in from sea to shining sea.

"Because the East Coast was two hours ahead of us and the people from the West Coast an hour behind, I ended up coming in at 6 (a.m.) and left at 10 (p.m.), he notes.

In one day alone, he was interviewed 22 times by journalists of every stripe.

"I can't recall a truly stupid question from the media," he says.

Nearly everyone wanted to know who makes decisions about mandatory evacuations and when to lift the evacuation order.

"The honest answer is that in most states it is a consensus," he says. "The incident commander makes a recommendation based on the fire behavior. In Colorado Springs, the evacuation was a group effort with the mayor, sheriff and incident commander coming to a consensus on the decision."

After spending eight days and seven nights on the Waldo Canyon fire, Johnson was dispatched to the nearly 100,000-acre Arapaho fire in Wyoming for four days.

"Colorado Springs taught me again that there is always something else to learn," he says. "As a volunteer chaplain, I'm used to helping those with loss. But learning is two-way. I came back with a few new thoughts on helping people."

As a seasoned volunteer firefighter, he also learned long ago that it's not wise to predict how the rest of the fire season will unfold.

Never mind the fire season west of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington has been uneventful.

"I'm not unpacking my gear until October," he says.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.