Minnesota firefighters find new challenges in confronting Oregon wildfire

A firefighter stands with a fire truck in the background.
Eden Prairie, Minn., Assistant Fire Chief Ward Parker speaks with reporters outside a fire station on Wednesday. Parker was among 29 Minnesota firefighters who helped battle wildfires in southern Oregon.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Twenty-nine firefighters from all over Minnesota are back home after battling wildfires for two weeks in southern Oregon. The crews worked 12-hour days and spent their nights in camps with hundreds of colleagues. Wilderness firefighting was quite a change of pace for most of the Minnesotans.

Gov. Tim Walz sent the crews west after Oregon officials requested their help through a 50-state mutual aid compact. They included firefighters from several suburban Twin Cities departments as well as Bemidji, Crosslake and other communities.

They met up in Fergus Falls, got some basic training, and hit the road Sept. 15 in a caravan of nine trucks. Eden Prairie Assistant Chief Ward Parker says it took less than a day of driving before they got a taste of what they were heading into.

“From the Montana-North Dakota border, it was complete smoke. All the way through Montana, Idaho, Oregon, we couldn’t see any mountains,” Parker said. “It was like you’re driving at dusk.”

Dozens of wildfires have burned millions of acres in the western United States.

Search and rescue personnel look for possible fire victims
In this aerial view from a drone, search and rescue personnel from the Jackson County Sheriff's Office look for possible fire victims in a mobile home park on Sept. 11 in Ashland, Ore. Hundreds of homes in Ashland and nearby towns have been destroyed by wildfires.
David Ryder | Getty Images

Parker spoke at a news conference Wednesday along with five others who took part in the effort to fight the Slater fire along the Oregon-California state line. It’s an estimated 155,000 acres, or about a third the size of Hennepin County. It started Sept. 8 and is about two-thirds contained.

The Minnesotans did not have to deal with masses of flaming trees or burning buildings on their deployment. Brainerd Deputy Chief Dave Cox said their work mostly involved putting out hotspots in places that had already burned.

“That was one of the things we worked on quite a lot was mop up on some of these stump areas. We would work on digging out a stump, and 20 feet away, the roots would be on fire. It’s a little different because of course we’re all structure firefighters and we do some wildland in our areas, but when we come in, we’re used to saying we got a building on fire, let’s put it out right away,” Cox said.

They each brought their own tents and spent the night in a large encampment with around 1,200 other firefighters near the small town of Cave Junction, Ore.

Dan Retka with the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View department said they worked some long days.

“We’d get up at 5 in the morning, start getting our trucks prepped, get breakfast and we’re usually on the road by 6:30. Head over to a briefing, get back to camp around 7 o’clock, and shower, eat chow and you’re in bed by 8 o’clock,” Retka said.

Dan Anderson, who works with Retka, said it was physically demanding.

“The terrain was a lot of work. There were times when we were climbing hills and we were hanging on to trees to climb the hills, so it was something, especially when you’re carrying a pack of water on your back. I think that was the biggest challenge for most of us.”

A man in a polo shirt stands near a microphone.
Motley firefighter Nick Dille speaks with reporters outside the Eden Prairie fire station on Wednesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Anderson said the feeling of accomplishment doesn’t come quickly with wildland firefighting.

“We climbed a particular mountain out there for three straight days, putting water on different parts of it to cool it down. At the end of the third day you finally realize that you’re making progress, then you go further down the road and it’s all black, and you’re kind of amazed at how much damage has been done,” Anderson said.

Firefighter Nick Dille of Motley said he wouldn’t hesitate to go again.

“We had such a great task force to go with, and we got along so well. It’s what we do. If somebody needs help we’re going to go,” Dille said.

While the work was difficult, the firefighters say residents of Cave Junction welcomed them with open arms, and were grateful that their community was spared from the flames. 

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