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Double duty

Staring down the beast that is wildland fire isn't a job rural fire districts in Jackson County shy away from. Just ask Greensprings Rural Fire District Chief Gene Davies and his volunteer firefighters, who were one of the first crews to attack the Oregon Gulch fire July 31 just before it blew up for a 30,000-acre run.

That day's experience of fighting — and then turning and running from — the fast-growing blaze is one Davies would rather not relive, but the wildland firefighting training he and his crews undergo helped them keep their cool in a situation where those less savvy would likely have panicked.

"We live in the urban-wildland interface, so we have to be prepared for structure and wildland," said Bill Fuller, fire chief at Evans Valley Fire District No. 6 in Wimer. "There is a good chance, especially this time of year, that you're going to have a grass fire if you have a structure fire."

In addition to their structure-fire training, all of the District No. 6 and Greensprings Rural firefighters — most of whom are volunteers — are formally certified as Type 2 firefighters and trained to fight wildland fires.

The same goes for all of the firefighters at Rogue River Fire District No. 1, said Capt. Mike Hammond.

"That is the basic requirement for us, and then as people are here and become more senior, they get additional credentials after that," he said. "We have to redo annually wildland refresher training ... but we practice our wildland firefighting techniques regularly."

The crews practice progressive hose lays, mobile attacks and deployment of fire shelters, Hammond said, and they make sure their wildland firefighting gear — which is much lighter than the structure-fire gear — is tidy and ready to throw on when the call comes.

"We have had a number of grass fires this year. Fortunately, we have gotten on them quickly while they were still small," he said. "If the fire becomes large enough, we tend to focus on structure protection and (Oregon Department of Forestry) tends to focus on wildland."

From a wildland firefighter's standpoint, having rural fire departments spread out across the county pays off big time when their personnel can respond to a fire quickly and douse the flames before it begins to spread, said Brian Ballou, fire prevention specialist with ODF.

"Most of the structural fire departments in both Jackson and Josephine counties have one or more dedicated engines for fighting wildfires," Ballou said. "Classically, they prefer that we fight the wildfire and they take care of the structures, but we don't get mad at them when they put out a wildfire before we show up."

Most of the rural fire departments and ODF conduct a training session together before each fire season, Ballou said, to make sure everyone is on the same page for when a fire like Oregon Gulch takes off.

This time of year, ODF responds to everything the rural departments are called to fight. That type of interagency collaboration paid off in spades for Davies and his crew members on July 31.

Had ODF not alerted him and his crew that a wall of flames was heading straight at them that day, Davies thinks he might not be here to tell the story.

"It's really an extraordinary process," he said. "And it works."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or swheeler@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/swhlr.