Portland Battalion Chief John Derr drove south through the night on Interstate 5, leading a caravan of four fire engines and one smaller brush rig straight to a fire charging toward the southern edge of Medford.
They pulled in at 1:15 a.m. that Wednesday, barely 24 hours after winds on Labor Day whipped up fires all along Oregon’s west side.
They had no time to rest.
The 20 firefighters in the Multnomah Task Force 30 got a quick briefing on the side of a road from local fire bosses.
Then they pulled past burning blocks of mobile homes, about a quarter mile west of I-5, and got to work.
Seven hours later, they had helped save 80 to 100 homes in the Medford Estates mobile home park as bright orange flames consumed other homes and downed trees just feet away.
It was a dramatic start to 12 days on duty for the task force — one of 38 structural firefighting squads activated by the state fire marshal as more than 1 million acres in Oregon burned from south of Portland to the California border and from Lakeview to the coast. Nine people have died in the fires and another 11 people are missing, according to the state.
The team slept in tents set up in a Medford middle school’s football field before shifting to safeguard a residential road in rural Jackson County near the South Obenchain fire, northeast of Medford. There, they set up controlled burns as two helicopters scooped up water from a nearby pond to drop on the encroaching wildfire.
In the next days, they relieved exhausted fire crews in Talent and Phoenix, responding to the cities’ regular dispatch calls. By week’s end, they were near Cave Junction, helping assess homes and other buildings near the Slater fire straddling the Oregon-California line.
Pat McAbery, 54, a 28-year Gresham firefighter on the task force, remembers how emotionally spent he was after he’d been sent to California’s Camp Fire in Paradise in 2018. By the time his crew arrived, there was little they could do beyond shutting off water and gas utilities, clearing roads and putting out any flare-ups. The deadliest fire in California history had killed 86 people and leveled more than 13,900 homes.
This time, he said he was grateful the crew reached Medford to contribute on the front lines.
“We’re doers. We’re helpers. We want to save things,” McAbery said.
“Sometimes you never see that positive side, never feel that reward,” he said, speaking from the seat of a fire rig outside the Illinois Valley Fire District Station in Selma, near Cave Junction. “Yes, there’s horrible destruction, but in some way, we had made a difference.”
The task force of Portland, Gresham and Port of Portland firefighters was activated at 4:45 p.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day.
With Portland Fire Bureau Lt. Gordon Hartung and Derr at the lead, they headed to the Clackamas County community of Colton, located between Estacada and Molalla, to check water supplies and do fire spotting.
But they had barely checked in when they got the call to move on to Medford instead.
Instructed to drive Code 3 with full lights and sirens to the freeway, they raced through dark smoke and past the clogged traffic of evacuees through Colton and Woodburn before reaching I-5.
As they got near Salem, they were stunned by an eerie pitch black all around them from the boiling wildfires that were consuming miles of forestland and small towns up the Santiam River to the east.
They stopped once to grab truck-stop sandwiches and reached Medford in the pre-dawn hours.
Medford Estates is a 244-space mobile home park, with streets all named after trees set along a paved trail and greenway surrounded by mature foliage that attracts hummingbirds, owls and finches. A tennis court, pool and a central community space where people played bingo completed the development. Latino residents make up about half of the community.
The task force members joined crews of local firefighters from the Medford Fire Department, Jackson County Fire District No. 3 and Oregon Department of Forestry. They were told to look out for big floating embers stoked by the fierce winds — and keep them from spreading to other structures. They rushed to wet down any firebrands that were landing on fences and bushes.
McAbery and Gresham Fire Lt. Anthony Foster maneuvered their brush rig to the neighboring Bear Creek Greenway, a stretch of bike and walking paths that had been burning north from Ashland.
A brush rig is a more maneuverable pickup-sized truck with a smaller water tank and pump.
Through thick smoke, Foster spotted a cluster of mobile homes that seemed untouched in the back of the development as fire raged in front.
“We think we have about 10 homes that haven’t burned back here. Can we get somebody back there?” Foster radioed to Derr. “I think we can save some of these homes.”
Foster, 35, a 16-year firefighter, and McAbery used a chainsaw to cut through a back fence, hoping to drag their one-inch-wide hose line through. But they realized there were many more homes that could be saved on the other side, so they cut out a bigger hole in the fence, shoveled out some dirt and four-wheeled their rig into the mobile home park.
There, they dragged their 200-foot-long hose where they could, flying to water down homes that hadn’t yet burned as fire destroyed other property, incinerated cars and playground structures and torched trees just steps away.
The task force leaders walked down a dirt road that threaded past rows of melted mobile homes to get a better look.
“There’s not 10 homes. There’s not 20 homes. There ended up being 100 mobile homes that hadn’t been burned,” Derr said.
“We decided to put in one of our engines and test the water a little bit. We don’t want to get big rigs deep into a fire that we can’t get them out,” he said. “We soon determined it was worth the risk and slowly brought another rig in and eventually we had all of our rigs in there protecting that mobile home park.”
The winds had shifted – no longer coming from the south but pushing in from the east, Derr said.
“The winds were in our favor,” he said.
At first they used one fire hydrant and then hooked up to several hydrants on the same grid. A city water pump was operating at only 70 percent.
By daylight, the hydrants in the mobile home park had gone dry. That forced Portland’s fire engines to drive out to a main road, fill up their 500-gallon tanks from a hydrant there and shuttle the water back, Derr said.
The team members were wearing their much thinner wildfire uniforms – lightweight flame-resistant yellow shirts and green pants — rather than their typical thick turnout gear and could feel the intense heat.
“You have things burning to the ground a few feet away from somebody’s home,” McAbery said. “We’d been better off in our turnouts, but you’re in a mode of you got to act now.”
They had arrived at Medford Estates at 2:45 a.m. and kept at it through 8:30 a.m.
They rotated people in and out of a staging area that local firefighters had provided for water breaks and breakfast – lots of scrambled eggs and egg burritos.
“We worked as one big team and were able to stop the fire in that mobile home park,” said Derr, 51, a 24-year firefighter. “We’re used to doing one house or two houses. I’ve never been on a fire on that large of scale in a residential area.”
Just before 8 a.m., Telia Fogle drove into Medford Estates to check on the 27-year home of her parents. She made her way past Fir Street, then Birch, Willow and Oak streets.
The fire had reduced so many of the homes to smoldering piles of charred debris.
When she got to slot 183 on Cedar Street, her parents’ place still stood.
“When I showed up there … they were still putting fires out behind the home,” Fogle said.
She saw Portland’s fire engines.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was just so fast that they got here,” she said.
The flames had melted the skirting of her parents’ home and warped a vinyl fence. One shed had caught fire. But that was it.
“I’m grateful that these firefighters came from all over the state to help,” Fogle said. “When I saw those firefighters behind my dad’s house, I was amazed that someone was here from Portland.”
Over the next several days, Multnomah Task Force 30, whose members range in age from their early 20s to 58, went wherever it was asked to go.
From the Almeda fire, the crew headed to the South Obenchain fire, northeast of Medford.
This time, they were dealing with “a total different animal,” Derr said.
They fought to protect homes along a rural gravel road off Buttes Fall Highway, southeast of Crater Lake National Park.
They used controlled burns – starting fires in low grass around houses — that would head toward the main fire coming down the hill. That created a large scorched space between the homes along Derby Road and the main fire, removing potential fuel that could feed the blaze.
“It’s literally fighting fire with fire,” McAbery said.
They watched as two helicopters filled up buckets from a pond beside a man’s home at the end of the road to drop on the burning ridge above.
By last Sunday and Monday, they turned to help Jackson County Fire District No. 5 in Talent and Phoenix, answering dispatch calls to give those firefighters a well-deserved and much-needed break after fire had devastated the two towns north of Ashland.
“We ran their district for a day and a half,” Derr said.
It was a challenge with different radio frequencies. The dispatchers ended up alerting two local battalion chiefs, who would relay the calls to Derr’s team. The crew then used a PulsePoint app, which tracks emergencies in an area and helps map the locations.
They handled about 10 calls, including one where a power company nicked a gas line putting in a power pole. The firefighters slept on cots and recliners in the station’s workout room.
They also helped assess fire damage to properties by filling out maps, noting properties in green if there was no damage, repairable homes in yellow and destroyed homes in red.
By this past Thursday, they’d worked several days in and around Cave Junction near the Slater fire, which has been burning on the Klamath, Six Rivers and Rogue-Siskiyou national forests in Siskiyou and Del Norte counties in California and Josephine County in Oregon.
They patrolled the area to do what’s called structural triaging south of Cave Junction, noting homes in evacuation zones that are surrounded by lots of brush or have gutters filled with needles and how easy they would be to protect or not.
Each day, the crew isn’t sure what they’ll be assigned to next. They’re available for up to 14 days, before they “time out,” Derr said.
“Our story continues,” he said Thursday night.
On Friday, they were set up in a defensive mode along the north edge of the Slater fire, between the fire and a residential neighborhood.
By evening, they got the green light to head home. They planned to hit the road around 7 a.m. Saturday and head north for the six-hour trip back to Portland.
“Learning in the fire business is completely by experience,” McAbery said. “The value to our home community is when it hits the fan at home, we can bring back what we’ve learned.”
— Maxine Bernstein
Email at [email protected]; 503-221-8212
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