Local firefighter: Deadly Camp Fire was learning experience

It’s been six months since Lebanon Fire Marshal Jason Bolen returned from one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history and the worst ever in California, the Camp Fire in and around Paradise.

Bolen and other members of two local strike teams are still processing that experience, he told audience members at a Lebanon Chamber of Commerce Forum Luncheon on April 26.

The two Linn County strike teams included crew members from nearly every department in the county. They left from Albany shortly after the fire started on Nov. 8, 2018.

Bolen gave a 45-minute slideshow and report of his experience, which, he and Fire Chief Gordon Sletmoe said, leaves the Lebanon Fire District with some lessons learned and to be learned.

“It was something none of us had ever seen, something the incident commanders had never seen,” Bolen said of the fire, which consumed nearly the entire city of Paradise and 240 square miles around it – nearly twice the size of the Lebanon Fire District. The fire destroyed 18,661 structures and killed 85 civilians over the course of approximately two weeks.

Remarkably, Bolen said, only five firefighter injuries were reported out of the 5,500 firefighters who fought the conflagration.

The fire was unusual in many ways, he said. It was very active at night, which uncommon.

“It’s dangerous working at night, because you’re working in territory you don’t know, you’re working in fuel loads you’re not familiar with and you’re working in terrain you can’t see very well. It’s a recipe for injuries. That’s why just injuries is just amazing.”

Other challenges of fighting the fire were unfamiliar, harsh terrain, 50- to 60-mph winds, and the dangers of exposure to the charred remnants left after the fire swept through an area.

“Cancer and carcinogens are a big concern for fire guys everywhere,” he said. “Everything’s a carcinogen.”

Then there were after-effects experienced by firefighters.

Bolen showed photos and described the 24-hour shifts that took firefighters sometimes 50 to 60 miles – well over an hour – from the camp.

The local firefighters’ day started with rising early, about 5 a.m., to ensure getting breakfast ahead of almost 3,000 other firefighters, followed by briefings, vehicle checks, strike team briefings. By 8 a.m. they were usually en route to their assignment.

After a drive of up to an hour or more, it was often 10 a.m. before the team got to its assigned site.

Crews were divided into Type 1, which used engines designed for city streets, and Type 3, which used four-wheel-drive, high-clearance brush rigs. The Linn County strike force had one team in each category. Bolen was on the Type 3 strike team, he said.

“Our crew worked a different assignment every day,” he said. “The structural team worked the same assignment day after day.”

Every firefighter received a bag containing 8,000 calories of high-carb, density food and snacks, that was intended to last 24 hours.  A lot of comaraderie developed as firefighters shared food and traded off what wasn’t their favorites, he said.

“When mealtime came we’d sit in a little circle and everyone would open their bags. It ended up being kind of fun for us. We look for the light things on events like this.

“Little things like that, little comaraderie builders with your crew, are so critical to the success of your mission because if you get mired down in what you’re actually doing, it can ruin you.”

Although the operations are highly organized, he said information was always a bit old by the time teams got to the fire lines.

“The best info we got was what we exchanged with the outgoing shifts when we got to our site.”

“Our crew worked a different assignment every day,” he said. “The structural team worked the same assignment day after day.”

The terrain was tinder-dry, he said,  and as the fire moved forward, it would further dehydrate the fuel so that, when the flames reached it, “boom, it goes up,” Bolen said. “Fire does indeed create its own weather.”

A lot of the crew members’ time was spent as lookouts, keeping an eye on the fire’s progress.

“We worked those rural areas, those Sodaville, those Waterloo-type areas,” he said. “We were in a new location every day – new environment, new challenge, new task to perform.”

Because the relief shift would not get to the site until around 10 a.m., 24-hour shifts were, in reality, more like 30 hours, he said. Nights were cold, with temperatures dropping into the 30s, and firefighters could only grab naps of an hour or two when they weren’t moving around on patrol.

He showed a slide of a tweet from former President Barack Obama, which featured a photo showing local crew members.

“It’s kind of cool when the president tweets your photo out. It’s a big deal.”

For the most part, the fire didn’t burn through areas quickly, as is more typical of wildfires.

“It was complete consumption of all the fuels in its path,” Bolen said, showing photos of devastated rural homesites, one showing a beat-up RV untouched while the rest of the property was reduced to ash.

The crews would usually defend a fire line, watching for embers that flew across as the fire arrived, and work to keep fire from getting into the crown of the forest, rather than saving houses.

They would drive rural roads “similar to being out in Lacomb or Sodaville” and would stop at driveways and look. A tagging system showed which ones had been checked. If there was no tag, the crew would check the property – remains of vehicles, buildings, for signs that it was occupied when the fire arrived.

“It was our responsibility to go in and check that. It definitely was not rescue mode; it’s recovery mode.”

The devastation was overwhelming, he said.

“There wasn’t a lot left of everything. It was just gone. That was one of the hard parts for the crews that were on recovery: The fire burned so intensely, there was nothing left. It was very much cremation.”

He said that crew members would walk up to a house along a pathway that still had green grass on either side, and up to where a door would have been.

“There were four things you would see in just about every home: a washer, a drier, a refrigerator and a stove – the bodies of those, the forms of those. And that was it. Everything else was absolutely, utterly destroyed.”

He said firefighters are more used to seeing the remains of at least a lower story, maybe collapsed walls after a structure fire. Here, he said, they’d find ash and steel gusset plates, used to bind lumber together in a structure. “There were piles of those laid out, because that was all that was left.”

“We don’t see total destruction like that. And that had an effect on our guys. It had an effect on our psyches because every single house was like that.
“It was like a moonscape. No sound. I wasn’t prepared for that. The wind blows but there are no leaves, no birds, no animals. Nothing. Ash does not make noise. It is the quietest quiet you’ve ever heard. Eerie.”

The impact on the human population was severe as well, he said. Local residents were “incredibly appreciative,” greeting firefighters with signs and, in one case, local chiropractors who had lost their businesses set up shop in the fire camp.

“They decided the best thing they could do for us, to say ‘thank you,’ was to bring their tables out and throw them down every day and they would do chiropractic adjustments. Massage therapists would come down and do chair massages. You could walk over any time and take part in this service and they were so thankful to be able to do this. It was the coolest thing. Pretty amazing.”

He said he and fellow crew members visited a Wal-Mart in Chico, where the fire camp was located, to buy some socks and found it the “dirtiest and nastiest” he’d ever been in.

“It took about 10 minutes for us to realize all these people just got burned out of their homes. They have nothing. Everyone’s been going to Wal-Mart, going everywhere just to find clothes for their kids, for themselves. They’re trying to find a tent to live in. That was a humbling and sobering moment.”

He said the mental strain was more severe than he expected or had experienced before.

The other Linn County strike team spent its entire time in Paradise.

“Every day they would park their engine and get out and sift through rubble. All day, every single day, 12 hours. Shuffling through ash, looking for human remains. If they found it., they would notify forensic pathologists. They’d come over, bring the dogs over. They’d try to figure out who it belongs to, who it is.

“It was just a physically and mentally draining job.”

If the firefighters didn’t find anything, they had a sense of failure, he said.

“We’re doers in the fire service. We go, we show up and we help. We find your problem, we take your worst day and we make it better. They couldn’t do that here. That bothered them tremendously.”

Coming home after 10 days – 12 for the other crew – was also difficult.

“We’ve all been to conflagrations before, in Warm Springs, Bend, but we’d never gone to anything like this.”

There was what Bolen called a “failure cloud.”

“When you can’t do what you want to do, you wear that as failure. They didn’t fail, but to them, in their minds, they were letting somebody down. That’s an emotion and a feeling that our guys have to deal with when they get back to camp and when they’re coming home.”

He said returning to a family “that is so happy to see you, ‘Hey, let’s get back to regular life,’” is difficult after being “with guys who know what you’re going through.”

“I know some guys from our strike teams who had a really hard time getting back to regular life.”

He said that Lebanon Fire District has taken a step beyond other efforts in Oregon to provide help to emergency responders.

The district has created a peer support group, with an expert to speak to participants about how to deal with such situations.

“The interest has been absolutely overwhelming,” Bolen said. “We have more guys who want to be part of it than we have room.”

He said the biggest thing he brought back from Paradise was a sense of the resilience its inhabitants have displayed. He showed a photo of players in the girls basketball game between Chico and Paradise high schools following the fire.

“That community is stronger than ever,” Bolen said. “It shows what can happen when people come together for one cause.”