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Lomakatsi crews join the firefight

One week ago, as smoke crept down from the north into the Rogue Valley, I pulled up to the Lomakatsi office with a sense of déjà vu — wildfire season is upon us again.

Inside, I was greeted by Andres Marquez, our wildfire operations support coordinator, who said simply, “we got the call.” He was referring to notification from the Oregon Department of Forestry that Lomakatsi’s 20-person wildland fire hand crew had been called upon for duty on the Milepost 97 fire near Canyonville in Douglas County.

Andres had spent much of the past four months preparing for this moment — from ensuring the crew is up to date with required firefighter trainings and certifications, to arranging hand tools, fire engines and other equipment. I remember watching him lead the team through their annual “pack test” refresher a few months ago, when they had to don 45-pound vests and speed walk three miles in 45 minutes. There are a lot of logistics to cover, but Andres, our management team and the crew have been on top of it.

Originally from Ecuador, Andres has spent the last several years working as an EMT and wildland firefighter across the West. He speaks three languages — Portuguese, Spanish and English — making him a great fit for his role coordinating Lomakatsi’s multicultural crews. We’re fortunate to have him on our team.

Lomakatsi’s hand crew is the union of two of our 10-person Latino ecological forestry crews. These tight-knit team members are all originally from the states of Michoacán and Querétaro in Central Mexico. Now they live in Medford, and many have been residents of the Rogue Valley for over 20 years.

They’re the folks working up in the Ashland Watershed, and across the region, performing ecological forestry work. They’re thinning overly dense forests, and helping our partners conduct seasonal controlled burns that return fire to our forests under ideal conditions to minimize smoke impacts, reduce hazardous fuel loads and maximize ecological benefits.

You could say that preparing for wildfire is a year-round affair for Lomakatsi and our crews.

When we received the assignment for the Milepost 97 fire late last Friday afternoon, these restoration workforce members instantly became a wildfire crew. The team was just coming off a full week of thinning and piling in the forests above Ashland. Instead of a weekend at home with their families, they met at 3 a.m. Saturday at the Lomakatsi operations headquarters on Hersey Street in Ashland, and reported for duty at the fire command center outside Canyonville at 6 a.m. They haven’t missed a beat.

“The guys on this crew are amazing,” said Andres. “They have such a great attitude and bring their best with them every day, whether they are taking care of the forest or helping on wildfires. A lot of them are skilled soccer players and true athletes — it shows in the way they handle this physically intensive work, working as a team, day in and day out.”

I couldn’t agree more. These crew members are highly trained, seasoned professionals. Many have been with Lomakatsi for over a decade. They are like family. Led by Braulio Maya Cortez, our lead restoration crew manager and member of the Lomakatsi board of directors, I know the crew is ready to meet any challenge with professionalism and grace.

On the Milepost 97 fire, our crew is part of Division Zulu, creating fire lines as “anchor points” to control and stop the fire. They are also removing roadside vegetation to ensure safe passage for fire engines and equipment. They have access to water resources to put out spot fires and can request helicopter water drops as they work to maintain and expand the fire lines. The crew’s tasks are made even more strenuous by the remote, steep and rocky terrain. It’s tough work. I’m proud of them.

As of Thursday afternoon, the latest reports show that the Milepost 97 fire was slowing as it reached 13,070 acres with 30% containment. The Lomakatsi team is one of 51 hand crews currently deployed, and there were 1,505 personnel assigned to the fire. It’s truly a group effort.

I’m sure each of the crews working on the fire has their own unique stories and backgrounds. It always amazes me how well everyone — old colleagues and strangers alike — can work together on wildfires like this. As we find ourselves once again enveloped in the smoke of wildfire season, I am grateful for all of the dedicated people on the front lines working so hard to keep our communities safe.

Marko Bey is executive director of Lomakatsi Restoration Project (lomakatsi.org).

The Lomakatsi hand crew reports for duty at the Milepost 97 fire command center the morning of Saturday, July 27. Courtesy photo
Wildfire smoke over the hills, as seen from the north end of the Milepost 97 fire, where the Lomakatsi hand crew was working July 31. Courtesy photo