By Paul Daquilante • Staff Writer • 

Local crews battle flames, save homes in Eastern Oregon

Marcus Larson / News-Register##From left, Jeremy Plummer, Jeff Nichols, Cody Coonrod, Blake Paulson, Justin Bobbett and Tanner Morton were part of a local task force of firefighters who returned Tuesday from combating the Cornet-Windy Ridge Complex fire in Eastern Oregon.
Marcus Larson / News-Register##From left, Jeremy Plummer, Jeff Nichols, Cody Coonrod, Blake Paulson, Justin Bobbett and Tanner Morton were part of a local task force of firefighters who returned Tuesday from combating the Cornet-Windy Ridge Complex fire in Eastern Oregon.

“You have to hold certain certifications to go on these large fires,” Stock said. “And some departments don’t have the personnel and resources to spare.”

On Tuesday afternoon, a Yamhill County task force returned home from battling the lightning-caused Cornet-Windy Ridge Complex fire in Baker County. Sparked on Monday, Aug. 10, the fire had consumed 103,540 acres as of Wednesday — more than 150 square miles — making it the largest fire in the state, and was only 45 percent contained, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. There are more than 675 personnel fighting the blaze.

The local task force, which has been demobilized for the time being, included:

Six personnel, an engine and a water tender from the Amity Fire District, two personnel and a brush rig from the Dundee Fire Department and two personnel and a brush rig from each of the McMinnville and Newberg fire departments.

McMinnville’s Damon Schulze was the team leader, and the group headed east at 7 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 13. 

“It’s amazing you can go from one side of the state to the other and immediately engage in a fire fight,” said Stock.

The lightning-caused Canyon Creek Complex fire, which started Wednesday, Aug. 12, is burning one mile south of John Day and Canyon City. The blaze has destroyed 48,201 acres and is zero percent contained, ODF reported Wednesday.

There are more than 640 personnel fighting the fire, and a local task force assigned to this blaze includes:

Two personnel and a brush rig from each of the Carlton Fire District, Dayton Fire District and Lafayette, in addition to two personnel and a water tender from Newberg and an engine and four personnel from Polk County.

Terry Lucich, chief of the Carlton and Lafayette departments, is the team leader, and that group departed at 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 14. He said Wednesday he has no idea when everyone will return home.

“There’s no talk of demobilizing,” he said. The firefighting effort is going slow but steady, according to Lucich. “A wind change is expected tomorrow (Thursday). We’re on the back edge of the fire. We haven’t seen any flames yet, but we’re keeping busy.”

Stock said he had a third task force available to respond to the Canyon Creek Complex fire. It was comprised of a brush rig and two personnel from each of the Yamhill Fire Protection District and Amity, an engine and four personnel from Dundee and a water tender and two personnel from the Sheridan Fire District.

“We were up for deployment and then they stood us down,” Stock said. “Never in the history of a conflagration (intense fire) has the county given the state two teams. To have these local departments step up and be ready, and to have a third available, is incredible. My hat’s off to all of them.”

 

The base pay is $18 an hour for task force members, on a running clock from the time they leave their home base until two hours after returning, Stock said.

That means they’re paid during the time in which they’re eating, sleeping, preparing for a day’s work or engaged in any other kind of activity.

Amity sent a half-dozen members of its volunteer staff, in part, because the district has a “good core” to draw from, according to Hubbard.

Cody Coonrod, a water tender operator; Jeff Nichols, an apparatus operator on an engine; Blake Paulsen, an engine boss, and firefighters Justin Bobett, Tanner Motron and Jeremy Plummer reported to the Cornet-Windy Ridge Complex fire.

The 27-year-old Paulsen was married a month ago. He said his wife, Christine, is a “worrier.” For good reason, too. Firefighting is difficult, dangerous work.

Employed by Bighorn Logging Corp. of Banks as a rigger, Paulsen said he’s been a firefighter for nine years. He’s worked for the U.S. Forest Service, Black Butte Ranch Rural Fire District and for the Amity district for just a year.

He’s fought fires in California, Oregon and Washington.

Paulsen worked the Shasta-Trinity National Forest fire in 2008, when a helicopter carrying a firefighting crew crashed, killing nine of the 13 on board.

While assigned to the Cornet-Windy Ridge Complex fire, Paulsen left camp about 8 a.m., after having breakfast and getting his gear organized for the day. The task force he was on would be transported to a drop point to meet with a division supervisor, who would give the team its assignment for the day.

The team would return to camp around 9 p.m., but they were out until after midnight one day.

“We’d get back to camp, grab some dinner, get some sleep and get up the next day and do it all over again,” Paulsen said.

Upon arrival, Paulsen and crew headed to Stices Gulch Road, which he said is about three or four miles in length and is lined with more than two dozen homes.

Paulsen and others were there to cut trees and brush and position sprinklers around homes. Fifteen personnel and six pieces of equipment were able to save all but three homes.

Part of the time was also spent with the The Winema Interagency Hotshot Crew, a highly trained wildland fire suppression crew based at the Fremont-Winema National Forest in South/Central Oregon.

“It was a 20-person hand crew, the forest service’s finest,” said Paulsen, who was involved in backburning efforts.

It didn’t take long for Paulsen to realize the gravity of the situation when he and other task force members from Yamhill County first arrived on the fire line.

“The first night was an eye-opener,” he said. “You knew this is real. People are losing their homes.”

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