AP photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
A grueling fire season that has stretched resources thin across the country isn’t over yet for Umatilla County firefighters deployed to southern California.
A strike team including four firefighters and a brush truck from Pendleton Fire Department, three firefighters and a brush truck from Umatilla County Fire District plus personnel and equipment from Union County headed south late Saturday along with four other Oregon strike teams deployed by the Oregon State fire marshal. The Umatilla/Union team is staged in Chino, California, to fight one of the state’s wildfires. Fires further north near Sonoma have killed more than 40 people and drawn in dozens of strike teams from other states.
“We send firefighters to Washington state on a pretty regular basis, or into southern Oregon, but things have to get pretty bad in California for them to send for help,” Pendleton Fire Chief Mike Ciraulo said.
A few weeks ago it was Oregon that needed the help, as the Chetco Bar fire burned almost 200,000 acres in southwestern Oregon and another blaze swept across the Columbia Gorge. Ciraulo said his department has sent personnel out to help fight nine different fires in the Northwest this summer, and Umatilla County Fire District has deployed to a number of out-of-district wildfires as well. Ciraulo is a wildfire incident commander for the state and said there were times they asked for help that other states couldn’t send because they were already dealing with too many fires of their own.
“This is probably one of the busiest seasons we’ve seen in recent years,” he said.
Umatilla County Fire District operations chief Jim Forquer said the frequent mutual aid deployments is a “testimony to the extreme fire season” the country is having. California firefighters have already been up in Oregon fighting the Chetco Bar fire, he said, so it was only right that Oregon would be willing to turn around and help them.
One thing non-firefighters can do to help is keep the local fires to a minimum by remaining cautious and remembering that vegetation is still dry despite burn bans being lifted.
“I’d just remind folks to be safe out there,” he said. “Don’t leave fires unattended.”
Ciraulo said that fire districts and departments are paid for sending personnel to assist in wildfire responses like the ones in California, so Pendleton, Hermiston and Stanfield taxpayers are not footing the bill for the strike team’s travel to Chino — in fact, it creates “a little bit of revenue” for the department.
Beyond the question of money, however, Ciraulo said firefighters from different states being willing to help each other out is just the morally right thing to do. And the personnel who have a chance to fight fires alongside teams from other states in different terrains come back more experienced, with new ideas.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” he said.
The Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office said in a statement that the department is “extremely grateful to Oregon’s fire chiefs and their agencies for again stepping up to the plate to help our neighbors to the south as they continue to struggle with an unprecedented amount of fires on their landscape.”
The Umatilla/Union strike team is expected to be deployed for 14 to 21 days, not including travel. Updates on their deployment are available on the Pendleton Fire & Ambulance and Umatilla County Fire District #1 Facebook pages.
Contact Jade McDowell at email@example.com or 541-564-4536. The Associated Press contributed to this story.