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Local firefighters return from Northern California blaze

Last week, a 21-person firefighting battalion from southwest Oregon had an important mission: protect Northern California homes from a 70,000-acre wildfire burning nearby.

The firefighters of the Rogue Valley Strike Team — made up of personnel from five Jackson County departments — utilized a variety of methods in their structural triage and defense against the Kincade fire burning in Sonoma County: removing vegetation that could carry the flames to the homes, clearing decks, roofs and harder-to-reach nooks of combustible debris, filling rain gutters with water and plugging the drains.

In some cases, task force members stayed on scene in case the fire ripped through the area, hose lines at the ready. They also would head to areas that already had been hit in an effort to put out leftover hot spots and mop up.

“In the three, four days of shift, there were several hundred that just our task force was directly engaged on,” says Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Tom McGowan, who led the strike team composed of firefighters from Medford Fire-Rescue, Jackson County Fire District No. 3, Jackson County Fire District No. 5, Ashland Fire & Rescue, and the Rogue River Fire District.

On Saturday, Nov. 2, the Jackson County team returned home, one of nine to do so from across Oregon that were part of an initial 16-county, 271-person force dispatched to the Northern California fire Oct. 27.

On Tuesday, the blaze was estimated at 77,758 acres and was considered 84% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection. The fire had destroyed 374 structures, including 174 homes, the agency reported.

Strike teams from Klamath, Douglas, Multnomah, Columbia, Lincoln, Yamhill, Lane and Washington counties also have returned home, according to the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office. There is a chance more local crews could head back to California as wildfires continue to rage across the state.

“The potential is there for sure,” McGowan says.

Dispatching that much personnel to another state is an action available through an emergency management assistance agreement Oregon and California made. If a major wildfire event is too much for one state to handle, the other can dispatch resources and personnel to aid in the fight. Much of that agreement stemmed from a 2014 wildfire in Weed that destroyed more than 100 homes, McGowan says.

“Through those events, we’ve got these contracts, these agreements in play,” McGowan says. “It has really drastically made our response times much more efficient.”

Kincade fire personnel made camp at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, with shifts working 24 hours on the line. Those shifts began with briefings, which covered fire activity from the previous night and what was expected for that day. Deployment to the line followed. Firefighters from California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho gathered and took on different line segments.

The California crews and residents were grateful for the assist, McGowan says, adding his crew had ample face time with area residents during their weeklong stay.

“Ninety-eight percent of everybody we came in contact with was just in tears and humbled and wanted to give us a hug and just express their gratitude,” McGowan says. “I feel just as grateful to be able to provide that to them.”

This is the third straight year Oregon has dispatched agencies to help its southern neighbor. In November and December 2017, 15 teams helped fight the Thomas fire near Ventura. In July 2018, three Oregon strike teams fought the Mendocino Complex. Fifteen more followed four months later in November to fight the Camp fire, which decimated most of the town of Paradise and claimed 85 lives.

McGowan says wildfires of this nature are now a “shared responsibility” between states.

“You can’t explain the amount of impact that a fire that large has on a community,” McGowan says, recalling his time on the 2017 Thomas fire front lines. “In one section that we went to help provide some effort, put out some hot spots, help clean up and mop up around homes, take the heat away. I physically saw 16 homes under different levels of construction that had been completely wiped out. And those are only the ones that I could see from the road on our travel. There are hundreds and hundreds of homes that were leveled to the foundation. These are people’s lives, their memories, their financial support, their critical documents, all of it just wiped out.”

He adds that while southwest Oregon communities do come first, the connections between the Rogue Valley and Northern California are deep and significant.

“(We) have family that lives in Sonoma,” McGowan said of the Kincade fire. “Or they moved from that area, or they’ve got ties there. And it’s unbelievable — truly unbelievable — the amount of people who comment or communicate that they have ties to that area, and they are just so thankful that we have allowed our crews to go be a part of taking care of an extension of their families, of their friendships, of people they’ve worked with and are connected to. So even though we do take some time away from our community, we are kind of just an extension.”

When the call for a similar incident forcing mass displacement comes from our neck of the woods, McGowan will be grateful knowing that additional help will come from the south if needed. Moving forward, he thinks such interstate aid is likely going to be an annual event.

“This is the expectation of what is to come,” McGowan says. “I just have seen it for the last three, four years. With climate change and fuels and a lot of the sensitive areas around thinning and fuels reduction, I do not see a significant change for the next several years.”

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

The Rogue Valley Strike Team, composed of personnel from five Jackson County fire departments, helped in Northern California’s fight against the Kincade fire. Photo submitted by Tom McGowan