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In the hours of darkness: mop-up crews root out hot spots

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When you drop off to sleep, a dusk-to-dawn ritual begins as men and women scurry up and down remote mountain slopes searching for hot spots in the Garner fire, which burned furiously to the east of Grants Pass just two weeks ago.

It’s dirty, treacherous work, with the way forward illuminated only by a flashlight attached to a helmet. In the distance, 20 men and women resemble a string of Christmas lights as they move through the forest.

“You’ve got to mentally psyche yourself up for this night duty,” said Howard Harris Sr., a Salem resident who, at 60, is one of the oldest on his crew and is in his second year of fighting fires. “You’ve got to keep your eyes out for cougars and timber rattlesnakes.”

And wasps. Crew members spray insect repellent onto their hands and rub it on their faces to ward against the pests, who’ve been a big problem in the forests this year.

A few days into mop-up operations, Harris and his son’s fire-resistant suits are covered in ash, resembling those of hard-scrabble coal miners. Their job: to dig up and rake hot spots, particularly around tree stumps and deep into smoldering root systems.

Using shovels, picks, Pulaskis and McLeods, the mop-up crew leaves behind a landscape that looks like a rototiller gone wild. Some of the trenches and holes created during previous firefighting efforts make it difficult to maneuver through the forest. Snags, weakened by the digging and the fire, also pose a threat.

Water tenders are on hand to spray down hot spots. Near creeks, crews have erected temporary reservoirs that are used to fill up the water tenders.

Working for Lava River Forestry, crew members on this night are going over an area they’ve worked before, searching for anything they’d overlooked the first time. Their mission is to create a 600-foot-wide perimeter around the fire area that stretches over some of the roughest terrain Southern Oregon has to offer.

Because of their efforts and the work of the 1,347 personnel assigned to the Garner, the fire is 70 percent contained less than three weeks after it started.

The back-breaking digging and climbing is exhausting, and the crews understand they need to be vigilant to extinguish any burning embers. Many have a glove on only one hand, using their bare hand to feel the heat coming from the ground, helping them home in on where to dig.

The crews get daily briefings and training and are constantly reminded not to get complacent and to stay alert to the dangers all around them.

Sometimes while the crews are out mopping up, the Garner fire roars to life again, igniting columns of flame. The same men and women are mobilized to contain the flareup, working hard through the night while making sure they stay safe.

Despite the grueling schedule, they don’t seem to mind toiling through the night.

“It gives you a sense you’re really doing something important,” Harris said. “It’s also great to be in the outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.”

Five or more crews are working in various locations on the hillsides of the Garner at any given time. Across Southern Oregon, the half-dozen major fires that have pumped weeks of unhealthy smoke into the Rogue Valley have similar crews out in the woods working to snuff out the embers and build containment lines.

The work, which is similar to engaging an enemy in battle, is expensive. The Garner Complex, which has been separated from the much-larger Taylor Creek fire, has cost $38.5 million to date, a massive amount of money for the lightning-caused blaze that started July 15.

With fewer hot spots found recently at the Garner, more personnel are being diverted to the Taylor Creek fire, which threatens hundreds of homes west of the Wild and Scenic stretch of the Rogue River and the town of Merlin.

Mop-up operations for the Garner begin after a 6 p.m. meal and a briefing. Crews are then driven to the fire lines, beginning their work as the sun goes down. They dig and climb through the night, finally stopping as the sky begins to lighten, returning back to camp as the day crew begins to stir. When they get ready to bunk down in Merlin, they sometimes look west and watch the reddish glow of the Taylor Creek fire that has raged through 31,596 acres as of Thursday and was 30 percent contained.

“By the time I get back to camp, I’m pretty tired,” said Chaney Hart, a 21-year-old University of Oregon student. “I could sleep on a rock.”

Hart, a wildlife suppression specialist working the South Cascade District for the Oregon Department of Forestry, is part of a two-man reconnaissance team that uses a hand-held infrared detector that shows where hot spots are located.

The device can detect heat from considerable distance, allowing Hart to survey a large area quickly.

Roaming the hillsides looking for hot spots also has its perils.

“Sometimes I’m concentrating on what I’m doing, I forget where the road is and kind of lose my direction,” Hart said. Sometimes his partner stays along the road, which helps keep them oriented.

When he comes up to a stump, he extends the back of his hand to confirm the heat signature shown on the display. Pushing aside some ash, a glowing ember becomes visible.

Hart, who is in his third year fighting fires, puts a stick in the ground and wraps some plastic tape around it to help direct the hand crews to the spot.

In previous years, Hart has worked only around the Eugene area, getting his start working on fire suppression from his dad, who works for a timber company in Eugene.

“This is the first time I’ve been sent to an off-district assignment,” he said. “I’d never been to an 8,000-acre fire yet.”

During the day and at night, aerial surveillance also looks for hot spots, but it’s more difficult to see through snags, uneven terrain and forests to understand what’s lurking at ground level.

The Palm IR (infrared) team, as Hart’s crew is called, combs the hillside quickly, followed by the mop-up team, which is managed by crew bosses and squad team leaders. While they can locate each other by seeing the lights on their helmets, the crew members call out periodically to make sure nobody gets lost or is in trouble. Most members of the mop-up crew don’t have walkie-talkies.

They waste no time digging around hot spots, intent on reducing the threat from the Garner.

“We’re just trying to make sure people are safe,” said Angel Aspericueta, a 35-year-old Salem resident who is a veteran of the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire in 2002 and the Chetco Bar fire that ravaged Southern Oregon last year, spreading over 192,000 acres. “I love it. I’ve been doing it for 17 years.”

Aspericueta, who works for Oregon State Parks for his regular job, likes signing up for fire mop-up work in the summer because of its great importance to his state, though he was looking forward to returning to Salem.

“Back home I’ve got my beautiful wife and four kids,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Jamie LuschChaney Hart, a wildfire suppression specialist, works with a crew boss from Lava River Forestry at the Garner fire Wednesday night.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneA mop-up crew with Lava River Forestry works late into the night at the Garner fire east of Grants Pass on Wednesday.