MONUMENT - Brian Spivey, Umatilla National Forest division supervisor, said he knows every tree in his district by name. Spivey, of Heppner, has spent 20 years working for the agency, and spent countless hours cataloguing the trees for a timber harvest expected to take place this summer.
Now he's watching them burn.
On July 13, lightning strikes started several fires that came together to become the Monument Complex. As of Friday morning the fire, encompassing 84 square miles and 54,000 acres, was listed as 60 percent contained.
Spivey, like other firefighters, said the Monument Complex is a fire with characteristics of those usually seen in August, not July.
"This is a big one," he said. "We probably haven't had a fire year like this since 1996. It's about a month ahead of schedule this year."
Wednesday afternoon Spivey supervised six crews totalling 115 firefighters back-burning and mopping up a section down to a road that will function as a fire break. For the most part, the wind was with them. As the fire crept slowly and steadily downhill, firefighters used drip torches to light the hillside below the fire line.
About every 30 feet, firefighters dropped another line while the flames consumed grass, brush and low branches in between. Meanwhile the wind whipped flames and smoke uphill, away from the road below.
Though the flames climbed sap lines up the standing trees and consumed downed logs until nothing was left but ash, fire information officer Randy Alvarez said this was simply a controlled burn.
Most of the larger Ponderosa pines making up the hillside will survive, said George Buckingham, fire information officer with the Monument Complex. Ponderosa pine is a fairly fire-resistant species. As fire moves through, it will burn the lower branches and act like a natural pruning process.
Also, Buckingham said, beginning immediately after a fire, firefighters will begin replanting vegetation and placing slag on the forest floor to prevent further erosion and damage.
After the fire moves through an area, another group of firefighters go through with tools and hoses to mop up any hot spots. A hose leads from a canister up the steep grade, forming a main line. From that main line, one-inch "toy hoses" lead off for firefighters to spray the blackened, smoking earth.
The crews Spivey manages Wednesday afternoon are only a small part of the force working on the Monument Complex. A total of 22 crews made up of 979 firefighters are battling the flames 24-7. Along with those firefighters are three helicopters and 63 engines.
Some of the firefighters, like Spivey, have been fighting the Monument blaze since it began. But others have been demobilized and new crews came in to take their place. Since Monday, crews have come from as far away as Costa Rica, North Carolina and Florida.
Alvarez said because the Monument Complex covers National Forest, BLM and private land, it's an interagency fire - which means firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry and private contractors are all working together.
"We all work together on the fire as a whole," Alvarez said.
They also are working to protect landowners' homes near or within the fire boundary.
"We don't want anyone to lose their home, ever," Alvarez said.
He said firefighters take time to find out how each house should be protected.
"Each house is almost an assessment in itself in how to protect it," Alvarez said.
While fire has changed much of the green forest to black ground and needle-less trees, the town of Monument has been transformed with the invasion of firefighters. Tents cluster on football fields and in parks. Cooking trailers and shower trailers are set up for basic amenities. The base of operations for the fire has been set up inside the Monument School, utilizing classroom and office space for operations. Downstairs, the cafeteria has been converted to a medical station.
As the town transforms, some of its residents have adapted.
Leigh Boyer was giving haircuts Wednesday morning. Charging $10 a cut, she said she was fulfilling a need she heard about from the fire camp.
Boyer set up a chair in a friend's yard, across the street from the camp. She said she is a beautician by trade and used her day off to help out.
"These guys asked for haircuts," she said.
Having grown up in Monument, Boyer said she's seen fires similar to the Monument Complex before. She's seen fire camp spring up in town before, too.
"It hasn't been bad for me. It's interesting," she said of the town's change.
But at the same time, she said it will be nice when the fire is over and kids can run around town as they usually do in the summertime.
While Boyer decided to help out of her own accord, the forest service also recruited locals to help with logistics.
Coordinators have used Jennie Mund, Monument School's secretary, and her expertise to work with local landowners.
Alvarez called her the fire's liaison to the locals.
"I know everybody," Mund said. "I know the facilities, who to call for what they need."
Though the blaze is listed at 60 percent contained, Alvarez said it's unknown when the scales may tip in or out of the firefighters' favor.
Depending on conditions such as wind, temperature and humidity, the fire can change at any moment.
One condition firefighters face on the Monument Complex is sundowner winds, or winds that blow in the early evening, often stirring up smoke, ashes and flames that lay dormant all day.
"With weather and fire, you can never tell what it's going to do," Alvarez said. "You never know. I hate to say we're good and have a blow-up tomorrow."