Transcript: Wildfire Episode 3: Incident Command

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G. Zimmerman:

On Saturday, September 2nd, 2017, a group of teenagers from Vancouver, Washington, drove over the    Bridge of the Gods, crossing the Columbia River into Oregon through the town of Cascade Locks, and up to the parking lot at the Eagle Creek trail head. It was a beautiful day and they were excited to enjoy their final moments of freedom before starting school back up on Tuesday. It was the last hurrah of their Summer break. They laughed as they pulled into the parking lot, filed out of their van wearing shorts and sandals, and started walking up the trail.

G. Zimmerman:

This is the hottest time of year in the Pacific Northwest with temperatures over 100 degrees, and the trail was crowded as everyone headed out to enjoy the cool swimming holes and spring waterfalls. At least for now, it was like a Saturday, like any other in the gorge. After two or three miles, the trail arrives at Punchbowl Falls, a magnificent cascading series of waterfalls that have created perfect swimming holes over the millennia. As you'll remember from Robbie Dones in episode one, hundreds of recreaters were enjoying this part of the gorge that day, but the group of kids from Vancouver had more on their agenda than simply admiring the scenic beauty of the space.

G. Zimmerman:

One of the boys in the boys in the group, whom we'll refer to as "The Kid", pulled a small object out of his pocket. As his friends giggled and readied their smartphones to record videos, he pulled a lighter out of one of his pockets. He lit a fuse on the object, and smoke started pouring out. He then reared back and launched the most fateful toss of his life, throwing a lit smoke bomb into the forest, landing it deep in the densely wooded ravine below.

G. Zimmerman:

Many of us will remember incidence of similar recklessness from our childhoods. Showing off by breaking the rules, pretty standard stuff for teenagers. But as we know, in this case, it escalated quickly from childish shenanigans to something much, much worse. The forest was so dry after a record setting Summer when almost no rain had fallen on the Portland area, that a fire erupted almost immediately and spread fast.

G. Zimmerman:

Trees and then the entire forest, igniting like a tinderbox as the Labor Day recreationalists looked on in horror. As the reality of their actions sunk in, the group of teenagers fled the scene, hurrying back to their van in the parking lot. On their way back to the trail head, a stranger said to them, "Do you realize you've started a forest fire?" They responded, "Well, what are we supposed to do about it now?" Clueless to the severity of their actions and prepared to abandon the consequences.

G. Zimmerman:

Back in the parking lot, a witness from the trail gave her story to the police. Just at that moment, a van with tinted windows went speeding past them out of the parking lot. She spotted a guilty looking girl sitting in the passenger seat. She later told reporters, "That girl looked like she was excited about getting away." She jumped into a police cruiser and they followed in hot pursuit of the mini van. With sirens blazing, they chased the van through the crowded parking lot and into the town of Cascade Locks.

G. Zimmerman:

Just before the van sped onto I-84 and back to Vancouver, it pulled over to the median. Before long, the police got a guilty confession from The Kid that yes, they had started the fire. In fact, he had started the fire.

G. Zimmerman:

As this scene unfolded beside a major interstate, smoke had already begun filling out the sky above them, an ominous sign of what was to come. Witnesses remember the kid acting eerily casual, sitting on the curb beside their van with his shirt off, not showing the signs of remorse or contrition that everyone wanted to see.

Ali High:

Seeing the video of him after they found him and his friends-

G. Zimmerman:

That's Ali High, the pregnant Cascade Locks resident who was forced to evacuate in her third trimester.

Ali High:

He has no idea what he just did. No clue. He's just oblivious and aloof.

G. Zimmerman:

After the arrest, there was little or no doubt as to who was responsible for the massive fire, but all of the blame was falling squarely on The Kid, and not on the group as a whole. Rather, the 15 year old boy who threw the smoke bomb would be held solely accountable for this massive, catastrophic event, and by the morning of September fifth, less than three days after the fire started, the news was released that they had a guilty party in custody.

Ali High:

I wanted immediate punishment. I was so livid.

G. Zimmerman:

This is Wildfire, a podcast about the past, present, and future of wildfire in North America. I'm your host, Graham Zimmerman, and I'm teaming up with my dear friend and business partner, Jim Aikman to help tell the story of a massive fire in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge just outside of Portland, and as we do that, learning about the natural phenomenon of wildfire. This is episode three: Incident Command.

G. Zimmerman:

In the last episode, we expanded our perspective on the gorge to encompass the millions of years of geology that shaped it, as well as the history of indigenous habitation that goes back thousands of years. As we wrapped up, we ended by considering that while living with fire requires a long term perspective, it also cannot be ignored in the short term.

G. Zimmerman:

After The Kid threw the smoke bomb in Eagle Creek, the following days unraveled into a gradually worsening nightmare. We've heard in previous episodes about the initial hours of the fire, as well as the large scale evacuations that followed. But that was just the beginning. The fire began with something very small, a firework the size of a grape, but it spread quickly in the first hours. By the next morning, it had already grown to nearly 2000 acres. When the wind picked up the next day, Labor Day, September 4th, it surged to 15,000 acres and by Tuesday, September 5th, the fire had doubled to 30,000 acres, reaching a scale that few had anticipated as a possibility.

G. Zimmerman:

The blaze spread to encompass the greater forest at the base of Mount Hood, the giant volcano looming over the gorge. Confronted by a growing fire that was endangering a handful of small towns and moving quickly towards metropolitan Portland, wildfire crews were called in to contain the blaze, and save as much infrastructure and human lives as they could. Most of the residents on the Oregon side of the gorge were evacuated, but as they frantically filtered out to neighboring towns and campgrounds, firefighters were quickly headed in the other direction, towards the fire. And that will be the focus of this particular episode, the Incident Command's structure of wild land firefighting forces.

G. Zimmerman:

How do these response systems work? What are their methods? What drives these men and women to keep going as they put their life and limb on the line to stop these fires? What does it look like when it all goes wrong? Finally, is it worthwhile and truly the best approach to put these brave souls in one of the most dangerous situations imaginable to combat a force of nature that, as we learned in the last episode, has always been a part of this landscape and always will?

G. Zimmerman:

We'll talk to a Fire Captain from eastern Oregon. We'll talk to one of the Commanders from the Eagle Creek fire itself. We'll also talk to a firefighter who worked in the 2000's, during the high water mark of our most deadly era in wild land firefighting. Of course, we'll hear from the people of the Columbia River Gorge about the initial days of the evacuation where they were engaged in the fight of their lives to save their homes, their towns, and themselves.

G. Zimmerman:

On the fourth of September, the weather was dry and hot. The wind was gusting and the fire in Eagle Creek was growing rapidly. Here's Jessica Bennett, the Cascade Locks Fire Chief.

Jessica Bennett:

Let's see. The fourth, the fire took off, and so with the state team that came in, it became a Type II Incident. So with that, there's a whole lot more people involved and state resources started showing up. My crew told me to go home and go to bed because I had been for... That was what? Three days now? And so, they sent me home.

G. Zimmerman:

As Jessica headed home, she was struck by the enormity of the task that lay before them.

Jessica Bennett:

I was crossing the bridge to go over to Stevenson and was just watching it burn down the gorge. That was devastating, very devastating, and a huge feeling of helplessness, even with all of those firefighters and everything, there was nothing that we were going to do to stop it. Absolutely nothing.

G. Zimmerman:

But even if under those conditions, the fire could not be stopped, there was still a lot to be done. There were now hundreds of people there working on it. At this juncture in the story, I felt like it was important to understand how all this wild land firefighting works and to do this, I went to my local fire station in Bend, where I met with Kurt Solomon.

Kurt Solomon:

My name is Kurt Solomon, Captain with the city of Bend, fire rescue.

G. Zimmerman:

I must say that the youthful fascination and reverence that I had for firefighters has not worn off. It was really fun to be in the fire station, surrounded by fire engines and turnout gear.

Kurt Solomon:

We cover 165 square miles for fire suppression and 1600 square miles for EMS. It covers the fire suppression from the urban side of things, but then it also covers the wild land aspect, as well.

G. Zimmerman:

That brings me to the reason why Kurt was the perfect person for me to be talking to.

Kurt Solomon:

Outside of my duties at the fire department, I sit on an Incident Management Team, which is Northwest Team 8. I'm currently Division Supervisor and I'm working on my-

G. Zimmerman:

To translate, this means that on an incident like that in Eagle Creek, which to be clear, Kurt did not participate in, he would be up the chain of command, managing dozens of different teams, and helping to coordinate the overall firefighting effort. I told him that I wanted to better understand how Incident Command works and he dove right in.

Kurt Solomon:

What they do is they break down incidents by typing and it starts at Type V which is going to be anything that a single unit response can handle, a dumpster car or a care fire. That would be like a Type V Incident. As you move into the Type III Incidents, that's really where you see Incident Management Teams come together. As we continue to move up the complexity level, when you move into a Type II organization, this is going to be a regional event. It doesn't have national implications. It will last for... it could be months. Type I Incidents are really anything that have a national effect. Some of the bigger hurricanes that we've seen in the southeast, things like that where it's a large swath of devastation crossing multiple state lines and involving tons and tons of different agencies will generally be considered a Type I Incident.

G. Zimmerman:

This brings us to an interesting point. This Incident Command structure was founded in the wildfire realm, but has since been adopted by the Federal Emergency Management Association, or FEMA, and is used for responses to a wide variety of disasters from hurricanes to active shootings to HazMat scenes. It has been successful in all of those applications. It is also important to share that these incidents are modular in their type, as was alluded to when Jessica Baker shared that the Eagle Creek fire graduated to a Type II Incident, which gave them access to more money, more manpower, and more resources. It also was the reason that Jessica was finally able to take a break.

G. Zimmerman:

Kurt then described the span of control, which is an important part of the Incident Command structure, which oftentimes is also referred to just as the ICS. The idea of the span of control is that each person is effectively able to manage three to seven people beneath them and this is what allows them to manage these disasters so effectively.

Kurt Solomon:

You ramp it up, you ramp it down based on the needs of the incident, but we also have to make it scalable and controllable so that things don't get lost and mistakes happen. It's been proven in the field for years and years. I can't ever say that it's flawless. There's humans involved, so there's always the chance for things to happen, but when you look at how many successful incidents have been managed that way, they far outweigh the bad.

G. Zimmerman:

Something that really struck me with Kurt and all of the folks in the Incident Command structure that I chatted with was their sense of reverence for those whom they worked with. Kurt may be managing and commanding those below them, but he gives them all the credit for the work that was done and takes very little for himself.

Kurt Solomon:

Take a first year guy through the Forest Service on a hand crew, and I bet he could dig line 10 times better than I can. I fully understand and my hat's off to those guys, the guys that are the boots on the ground, and digging the line, and doing that stuff, I mean it's a thankless, hard job and normally on assignments, if it's a busy season, they're going 14 days or 21 days before they get a break.

G. Zimmerman:

He also has a deep reverence for the magnitude of the phenomenon that he is working to corral.

Kurt Solomon:

Yeah, nature gets a vote and it's one that really counts, so you know, we'll do everything that seems like a good idea and within our power based on the resources that we have, but you might be just plugging along, making really good progress and then weather kicks up, or the wind shifts, or the fuels change, or topography gets in alignment with wind, and then all those things happen and then you kind of have to back off and go with plan B.

G. Zimmerman:

That really drives home what was going on in Eagle Creek during those first days of the fire as it progressed into a Type II Incident. Nature was flexing its muscles and all those in its path could do was try to protect small areas, or simply get out of the way. With that, Jim is going to pick up the story back in Eagle Creek.

Jim Aikman:

A few miles down the road from Cascade Locks and Eagle Creek is the small town of Dodson, populated by families that have lived there for generations. One resident, Tom Heuker has lived there his whole life, running his family's commercial fishing business on the Columbia. Tom built his beautiful house that he lives in with his wife and kids 100 yards from the Columbia river. For him, this place is and will always be home, and something worth protecting.

Tom Heuker:

They didn't think that east wind was going to come and they didn't think it was going to come and blow 40, 50 for two and a half days. They just didn't realize the severity of the wind in the gorge.

Jim Aikman:

When the fire first blew up, Tom and his family thought they were safe with the wind blowing the other direction. However, on the second day of the fire, the wind shifted and started blowing west like a bat out of hell, gusting 50 miles an hour, towards Dodson and further downstream, metropolitan Portland.

Tom Heuker:

We're just sitting out on the deck when the wind picked up, and just going to watch a fire burn we thought. Then it started blowing faster and it started spreading, and then we started getting a little nervous.

Jim Aikman:

Interstate 84 runs the length of the gorge and cuts a line between Tom's house and the blaze. He assumed, along with the fire department, that the fire would not be able to jump this wide asphalt barrier. He was wrong.

Tom Heuker:

But when it did jump the freeway, that's when I kind of got freaked out, and it's like-

PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:16:04]

Tom Heuker:

... Freeway, that's when I kind of got freaked out and it's like, it's coming. I thought for sure that my house is gonna burn down and you know, the officers came and asked me to leave. I told them that I wasn't going to leave and just kinda like needed to make a stand here in order to protect the other houses that were west of this one. And it was just, you know, instinct or just something that a guy just, I mean, I was on a garden hose the whole night. I didn't sleep, no respirator or no whatever. I didn't sleep just all up and down the road, stomping out fires and just protecting my property.

Jim Aikman:

Tom showed me the burned trees where the fire crept onto his property. He showed me where he'd cut lines in the ground with a backhoe to try and stop it from taking his house and the rest of the homes to the West. He told me he wasn't going down without a fight. After the fire jumped the highway and reached the shore of the Columbia River, everyone was again convinced that this massive barrier would be enough to finally stop the fire. Surely fire could not jump a mile of water. Wrong again.

Caroline Lipps:

When we evacuated it, in the first 24 48 hours, the situation became progressively more concerning and dangerous.

Jim Aikman:

That's Caroline Lips, who resides in Cascade Locks with her husband Dave and their dog. Together they own Thunder Island Brewing, one of the watering holes in their small town, which they left behind when they evacuated across the river to Washington.

Caroline Lipps:

We thought we were safe and I believe it was that Monday or Tuesday night after the fire started. That was when the fire jumped the river.

Jim Aikman:

On the third day of the fire, it jumped over the Columbia and started the Archer Mountain Fire in Washington. For Caroline. It was starting to feel like maybe nothing could stop it and there was no way out and she would be stuck just across the river from Cascade Locks with a front row seat to the destruction of her town.

Caroline Lipps:

It was this cycle of feeling safe, scared, concerned, and just completely helpless.

Jim Aikman:

The communities in the gorge were having some of the most trying days of their lives, but out of this unimaginable hardship, a spirit of resilience was brewing in Cascade Locks.

Jessica Bennett:

I got the phone call from Kim saying that we had firefighters to feed and so I, that's what we did.

Jim Aikman:

That's Shelley James, owner of the Cascade Locks Alehouse from the last episode.

Jessica Bennett:

like get off your ass and quit feeling sorry for yourself and come out here, basically. Yeah, so that was the phone call that started at all for us.

Caroline Lipps:

Shelley James with the Cascade Locks Alehouse and Kim Brigham with the Brigham Fish Market rallied our whole restaurant community and started this amazing effort to help feed the different crew members, the first responders, the fire crews, the other volunteer firemen in town. We finally had a way to contribute positively to what was a very negative and scary situation.

Jim Aikman:

This group of stubborn locals who had felt paralyzed and utterly helpless suddenly found that they had a purpose, something that they could do to help.

Jessica Bennett:

From there it turned into what we can do to help the people that are helping us the most. I mean, if you're willing to risk your ass to save our town, then we have to do what we can to, you know, put a little more meat on your butt, I guess. You know?

Jim Aikman:

Word spread about what this small group was doing in Cascade Locks to keep their firefighters fed. News networks could not get enough of the story, and before long it began to change the narrative of the fire from a horrible natural disaster to a story of perseverance and grit.

Jessica Bennett:

We got several, several, several comments from firefighters saying, "You know, we've never come to a town and felt so welcome and so wanted, like obviously everybody wants us to put out their fire, but you've made us feel like we're, you know, really part of your community. And we really appreciate that."

Jim Aikman:

I was personally blown away by the resiliency of the people in the gorge doing anything that they could to save their homes. But at the end of the day, their support of the firefighters is really nothing compared to the sheer heroics of what those public servants do in the field every day. It's hard to imagine a more harrowing job outside of military service. To get a more vivid understanding of what that process looks like. I reached out to my friend Jessica Kilroy, who grew up in a firefighting family in Montana. Her grandfather was a career firefighter in Boston and her father was a wild land firefighter through the seventies, eighties, and nineties all over the West. For Jessica, firefighting was in her blood.

Jessica Kilroy:

You know, my dad was gone a lot, and when he came home I just remember being so excited to see him and just so happy that he was back. The smell of forest fire became such a familiar smell to me that it was kind of this really affectionate feeling I'd feel whenever I'd smell that.

Jim Aikman:

These days, Jessica lives in California not far from the town of Paradise, which tragically burned to the ground in the campfire of 2018, including her aunt's house. But before that she grew up in Eureka, Montana and started fighting fire in 1999 to cover her tuition at the University of Montana where she studied wild land fire weather theory. Before long, she made her way onto the Plumas Hot Shots Crew, one of the most elite wild land fire crews in the country.

Jessica Kilroy:

A hot shot is a crew of elite fire ignition specialists. If you're going to think of it in the military terms, an elite task force trained to suppress fire doing what's called initial attack. You know, we lived together in the barracks just like the army and lived on a base and just basically lived and breathed fire, you know, every day. You know, I was in my twenties then, I think I had a high really high tolerance for that kind of thing because when they trained us, we were physically ready and mentally.

Jim Aikman:

Jessica described the lifestyle of a hot shot crew. Their physical standards were exceptionally high and this particular crew was extremely difficult to get on. Even if you survived the bootcamp, which weeded out anyone that might not be sure why they were there.

Jessica Kilroy:

I was one of two women that had been hired in 15 years on Plumas and they were pretty adamant about washing me out, but I was pretty stubborn.

Jim Aikman:

Yeah. It sounds like you proved them wrong through the boot camp kind of hazing and everything, right?

Jessica Kilroy:

Yeah. I was really determined. I wanted to be on that crew more than anything and it was fun for me, but I'm just maybe a glutton for punishment or something, I don't know.

Jim Aikman:

Once Jessica made it on the crew, things only got more challenging. The life of a wild land firefighter includes ridiculously long hours of grueling intensity.

Jessica Kilroy:

I remember getting called a lot at night. We'd always dread the phone ringing those back in the landline days, and get a call and grab your backpack and just jump in the Buggy, have your Nomex out. Sometimes I'd even sleep in my Nomex just because it would be easier than having to run down there and sometimes you're even changing on the buggy. Just basically get in there and and go. Just like in the movies, except we didn't have a cool pole to slide down. Start assessing where the fire has established, where it started, where it's heading, where the flank of each side of the fire is, which way the wind is going. We had a sling sicrometer, which is a device that measured the relative humidity. There was a lot of science involved.

Jim Aikman:

My imagination conjured vivid, haunting imagery of Jessica and her crew in the middle of the night covered in ash and choking on smoke, pushing through the darkness, orange glowing specters of fire silhouetting the trees that walled them in on all sides.

Jessica Kilroy:

You're mouth breathing as much as you can cause you're just trying to get as much air as you can and you're basically doing this kind of marathon and digging and cutting and using all sorts of tools and holding the line is probably the worst part because you're standing and making sure that no sparks are going over into the green, which is the unburned fuel and you're just standing in smoke and it's just smoking and smoking and it's so smoky and you can't really escape that smoke. So the fire is licking across, trying to lick across to the green, your like this human fence. There's a lot of adrenaline going and you're just kind of go, go, go, physically being exhausted.

Jessica Kilroy:

But part of that was just, there's these extra reserves that are in your body and you can kind of trick those reserves. A lot of marathon runners will do that. You know, it felt like we were on some kind of hallucinogen. You start to kind of almost hallucinate, you know, fires dancing in a strange way or you're seeing kind of a tracer of your hand because your mind just starting to kind of shut down a little bit because it's so tired.

Jim Aikman:

It wasn't uncommon for Jessica and her crew to push for 40 or 50 hours straight without stopping, let alone getting any sleep. 21 days on and two days off for six months at a time. Fueled by adrenaline they had one goal, stop the fire in its tracks and protect human lives and structures. They traveled light only carrying a few flares, eight quarts of water, and an emergency fire shelter that they'd deploy as a last resort during what she called getting burned over.

Jessica Kilroy:

That's what we called the baked potato wrapper. Basically, you know, it'll help you stay alive, but it's definitely, you're going to have some burns. I think realistically, if you are in the middle of a massive fire and you're, you know, you're inside of a piece of foil. The thing that kills firefighters is not necessarily even the heat. It is the superheated gasses that burn the lungs. They will fry your lungs in a moment. You're basically inside of a tornado, a fire tornado. There's no oxygen in the air anymore because the fire is eating the oxygen, so you have to dig a hole in the ground and then get the oxygen out of the soil and down, deep down.

Jim Aikman:

Hearing about all the dangers in this line of work. I was not surprised when Jessica told me how many friends she's lost in the line of duty and we'll come back to that later in the episode. But for now, Graham will take us back to the events of the Eagle Creek fire and the very real battle that firefighters were waging to try and save the historic Multnomah Lodge

G. Zimmerman:

As the fire escalated, growing with a terrifying grace to help try to keep the flames from consuming the human infrastructure of the gorge. One of the individuals who arrived for the incident's escalation to level two was seasoned, wild land fire commander Lance Lighty.

Lance Lighty:

I'm Lance Lighty, I've been in the fire service about 36 years. I am a deputy incident commander for one of the State Fire Marshall's teams. We come in when there's structures threatened and I'll go out with five or six engines or you know, a combination of engines and tenders and brush rigs on fires also.

G. Zimmerman:

Lance and those under his command are veterans of the wildfire response game and had already been out on multiple deployments that season and they were prepared for more. The Cascade Locks Fire Department was in desperate need of more help, and this was exactly what they needed. The fire chief, Jessica Bennett signed what is called a declaration of authority that handed the operation off to Lance's team. And this meant that the proverbial cavalry had arrived.

Lance Lighty:

They have a real small fire department and the fire was burning right down on their town. And so we walked her through the process. What we could do for her.

G. Zimmerman:

Lance and his team knew going in that they were in for a serious challenge.

Lance Lighty:

The winds were 40, 50 miles an hour and the humanity was, you know, we're close to like 12% which is super dry, especially for the gorge. And of course you get the steep, steep rugged hills. And what really allowed the fire to move was once it got to the peaks, you know, and burning and that heavy timber, they just kept, you know, big embers ahead of the fire and the wind was just carrying them ahead.

G. Zimmerman:

Due to those high winds, the fire was moving far faster than anticipated.

Lance Lighty:

The winds picked up and the tones for Cascade Locks went off. They're paging system for, you know, like a 50 acre fire, like three or four miles down the freeway and I like looked at her, and she's like, "That don't sound right." I was like, "Yeah, that don't sound right."

G. Zimmerman:

They mobilized down the highway to check it out.

Lance Lighty:

And by the time we got down the freeway by an hour later, the fire you know, had moved many miles down. Then we're just kind of watching the columns build on top of these ridges and the winds just carrying embers from basically ridge stopped ridge top. That's when we kind of realized it's like this thing's moving very fast, faster than we can keep up with and with the resources we had. And so we put placed another order for more, you know, fire engines, task forces to come in and add more overhead resources.

G. Zimmerman:

Overhead resources means helicopter.

Lance Lighty:

We were more trying to corral the fire away from houses and you know people, and try to keep them safe and get people evacuated. Actually engaging in the fire, it was only around houses and then just letting the fire kind of do its thing cause you weren't going to stop it. You know, the sun went down, the helicopters went away and so that really, you know, having the helicopters initially was nice but they, they couldn't keep up with the fire either. And it kind of dawned on us like, well how far and how fast is this fire going to go once ahead of us? We asked a home owner that was still there trying to get some stuff out. You know, what's next? Do we know what's our, what are we looking for with this fire? And they said, "You know, the Multnomah Lodge is only like seven miles up the road."

G. Zimmerman:

The Multnomah Lodge is a designated historic building designed by Albert E. Doyle and built in 1925. It is a treasured building with stunning views of the 630 foot Multnomah falls directly out its back window that is both a tourist attraction and an amazing beacon of the gorge's past. It sits thirteen miles down the river to the west of Cascade Locks, which seems like an incredible distance for the fire to have traveled. But now it was under threat.

Lance Lighty:

By the time they got there, the fire was burning, you know, up in the falls and all around and yeah, a very active fire.

G. Zimmerman:

They started setting up measures to protect a lodge is the flames swarmed through the forest and around the waterfall. But things were quickly about to become much more serious.

Lance Lighty:

So now we got rolling burning debris that could come into the lodge and trees falling and like I said, rocks falling.

G. Zimmerman:

And this rolling, burning debris. It blocked the road and in turn their escape routes.

Lance Lighty:

We were stuck there, you know, we could get out, we had good safety zones and a good plan so everybody was safe but yeah, we couldn't get our apparatus out of there or you know, our staff vehicles.

G. Zimmerman:

Pinned down by the debris they set to work, protecting this irreplaceable lodge, all of their equipment and their own lives.

Lance Lighty:

It'd flare up and it would wrap around through another little small, you know, area with trees where the lodge is sitting right basically in the chimney if you will, of a fire.

G. Zimmerman:

They kept this up for an exhausting ten hours.

Lance Lighty:

The wind had kinda changed a little bit, blowed this way, then it blowed back up, you know, and just more wood, timber and brush and finally the fire ended up wrapping basically the whole lodge.

G. Zimmerman:

Eventually when the fuel finally began to exhaust and things started to cool down, they were able to get in some heavy machinery and remove the rocks and trees blocking the road. It felt like major success, but the wind was still blowing and the fire was still moving. Lance headed down the road to check out another spa fire. This one, 100 plus acres caused by embers blowing further down the highway. As he arrived, he pulled up right next to a mileage sign on the highway and made a pretty terrifying realization.

Lance Lighty:

I called back to the command post and I was like, "We're on the freeway and it says twelve miles to Gresham, and the fire just ran twelve miles, in about ten hours."

G. Zimmerman:

And those from Oregon will know, that Gresham is a town of 100000 people and it is very much part of the Portland Metro area. The fire was headed for the big city and without a change in the weather, there was very little that anyone could do.

G. Zimmerman:

And before we go any further in the story of the gorge, we're going to hand it back off to Jim to talk about how these intense experiences bond people together and how sometimes these firefights can go ...

PART 2 OF 3 ENDS [00:32:04]

G. Zimmerman:

Heather and how sometimes these firefights can go terribly wrong. The biggest takeaway from our conversations with these seasoned firefighting professionals is that these crews eat, breathe and sleep fire and really become like a family forming deep bonds of camaraderie as they go through training, incredible hardship, and loss.

Jessica Kilroy:

I think that the comradery that I've experienced on the shots was ... it doesn't really compare to any other camaraderie that I've experienced since.

G. Zimmerman:

That's Jessica Killroy again. The hot shot wildland firefighter from Montana that we heard from earlier.

Jessica Kilroy:

I think it's sort of like the bond that you create in the face of chaos. It's just sort of like we were all there. We made it through and every moment that you go through something intense you just get closer.

G. Zimmerman:

One of Jessica's most memorable experiences on a hot shot crew was in south Lake Tahoe, California where her crew single handedly stopped a fire that would have burned the entire town to the ground. Working for 49 hours straight and operating together like a well oiled machine.

Jessica Kilroy:

But that one was really memorable because the crew really worked well together and that was one of the times when we realized how tight we were and we had really meshed well and we were all getting along great and being an efficient force.

G. Zimmerman:

Jess described a satisfying sense of duty in the work. A responsibility not just to help the people and the structures, but the landscape as well.

Jessica Kilroy:

Every single one of us took just a deep pride in what we were doing and we wouldn't have been there if we didn't because it's just so intense. I felt like I was called to do this duty to protect structures, primarily structures. Homes, people, houses, watersheds, all the creatures that live out there.

G. Zimmerman:

But sadly, this very important calling is not without its consequences. Jessica and all wildland firefighters experienced great loss and trauma.

Jessica Kilroy:

That's the other crazy thing is you get so close to these folks and then sometimes they die right there with you. We lost three firefighters on the Stanza fire and had to grid for their bodies and it was just really intense. And you lose three friends and then the very next day ... Well, the very next moment after gridding for their bodies we have to then go catch the line that we lost because we had to leave the fire line and keep fighting fire for another 24 hours or more. I think it was like 36 hours or something straight after that and that was after a full night shift. And then the next day having a memorial, but just like a few moments of this memorial at the fire camp and then they're like, "Okay, well get back out there."

G. Zimmerman:

Jessica described her symptoms of PTSD that crept up years after she'd stopped fighting fires. Comparing it to the trauma that haunts war veterans.

Jessica Kilroy:

I didn't know anything about PTSD. I had no idea that it even existed, nor did I know that I was affected by that. I don't think any of us knew.

G. Zimmerman:

I was often speechless during my conversation with Jessica. I couldn't imagine facing an event like a forest fire and being able to compel my body to run towards it and not away. I'm not sure I could summon in that kind of courage. These men and women are really nothing short of heroic putting their lives on the line to help, but at what cost? Listening to her tale from the front lines of wildland firefighting, I couldn't help but think that there must be a safer way to do this. One that does not take the lives of so many brave souls and tarnish the rest with a lifetime of trauma. And I was relieved when Jessica told me that a lot has actually changed since she stopped fighting fires.

Jessica Kilroy:

It came to the point where folks were like, let's work smarter and not work harder. Smarter, not harder. So that was kind of a daily mantra that we would have.

G. Zimmerman:

Ultimately, Jessica stopped firefighting after a serious injury to her back that she sustained while training to be a smoke jumper. Landing too hard during a skydiving exercise. But memories of those years in wildfires would never leave her, nor would the bonds she formed with her crews. And we'll hear more about the sweeping changes in how this country is now approaching wildfires in the later episodes as well as the room we still have to improve, but for now, back in the Columbia River Gorge, a silver lining was settling in on the blackened fringes of the Eagle Creek fire.

Tom Heuker:

No one's expecting this and so stress levels are high, long days, short nights. And so the patience with each other and the grace was actually tremendous.

G. Zimmerman:

That state parks ranger Clay [Courtright 00:36:44] at the Rooster Rock State Park.

Tom Heuker:

It was really a concerted effort and folks ... their hearts were in the right place, their heads were on the right place and I think we were a lot better off because of that.

Jim:

Yeah. I think just in interviewing people, the most remarkable thing that I've encountered is the way the community came together to respond to this thing and the resiliency and commitment to community that people felt. Your work was heartfelt. And I think it is just really encouraging to see people respond that way.

Tom Heuker:

That piece, Jim, was a blessing. It could have been you start having conflict or disagreement about putting the fire line here or there that ... and all of those things have impacts on the ground and that never happened, not in this situation. And so I think that led to a good outcome. It's leading.

G. Zimmerman:

Y'all remember Allie? Hi from episode two? The Cascade Locks resident who was nine months pregnant when she evacuated. She found her strength in focusing on her own silver linings. That many instances of good that came out of this destructive fire. The most important one being the birth of her son who arrived healthy in a south Portland hospital. Yeah, well case in point you mentioned silver linings.

Ali High:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

G. Zimmerman:

And I think is perhaps best illustrated by the name that you gave to your child.

Ali High:

Absolutely. Yeah.

G. Zimmerman: Which is what?

Ali High:

Jude Phoenix. So his middle name is Phoenix. We're like, "We have to commemorate this in some way. I mean he's our fire baby."

G. Zimmerman:

Allie's son will forever remember the fire that welcomed him to the world, immortalized in his middle name, carrying a reminder to always rise from the ashes. I couldn't think of a more beautiful way to honor their experience.

Ali High:

Focusing on that kind of gave me an opportunity to like immediately from the get go have a more positive like resilient mindset from the beginning. Like we're going to rise from this no matter what happens.

G. Zimmerman:

As we would see over the coming weeks and months, the fire was far from done, but at least for now everyone began to feel a slight glimmer of hope that things might just be okay.

G. Zimmerman:

You're now back with Graham. As the wind finally died down in the gorge and the firefighters were gaining an edge, the fire was still burning hot and over 30,000 acres of forest, but its initial explosive growth had slowed considerably. For the moment, this angry fire breathing dragon with sleeping, which gave everyone the opportunity to start reflecting on what had happened over the previous few days and it gives us a chance to reflect on the incredible work of these fire professionals. Having learned about the realities of fighting wildfire on the ground. It is clearly a highly sophisticated exercise in organized chaos and no small feat. It's been a true master class in logistical operations and high intensity situations employing a hyper organized incident command structure and staying calm under pressure.

G. Zimmerman:

Hanging out with Kurt Solomon and Ben, we learned about this command structure and how it applies to a fire like that in Eagle Creek. Jessica [Killroy 00:40:17] walked us through these operations on the ground, the severe toll they can have on everyone involved as well as the intense bonds that form within fire crews. And we heard from Lance [Lighty 00:40:29] about how these practices were brought to the Eagle Creek fire and their successful fight to save a historic landmark. Our primary goal in this episode was to understand the process of fighting wildland fires. How does it work on the ground and in the big picture? And perhaps more importantly, how does it affect the firefighters who are the ones actually putting their lives on the line to help the public?

G. Zimmerman:

Clearly the effects on these people are enormous and this is just one of the many reasons why it is our responsibility, every one of us, to make sure that we are informed and effective stewards of our environment and to minimize the number of deadly fires that put our firefighters at risk. We can all do our part to try and prevent enormous catastrophic burns that threatened civilization and to be better prepared when they come knocking. However, that will only get us so far because we've learned that these forests are born to burn. So then the question becomes, is there a better way to "fight fires"? A way that could potentially lead to less loss of life. Could that also in the end be better for the forests?

G. Zimmerman:

We all know that firefighting is vitally important. We cannot simply let these fires destroy our home and infrastructure and we also know that it is exceptionally dangerous. So what is the middle ground? There must be a compromise out there for us, a way for as Jessica Killroy put it, "Work smarter, not harder." To find the answer we will again look to the past. And in the next episode we'll examine the history of wildfire management in the United States and that will be our final step in establishing the foundation of understanding that we need before we look into the future and try to imagine the best path forward. But first back in the gorge, the winds finally died down and the firefighters were working hard to use the opportunity afforded them to get things under control.

Lance Lighty:

And so the winds, it gave us a break basically and give us time to catch up. So we're able to get some good lines in, get fire engines in position and then obviously got a lot more aircraft, which could dip out the Columbia, which is pretty handy having a big rig right there just staying on top of it and hitting the primary spots.

G. Zimmerman:

Things also finally cooled off at the molten Oma Lodge.

Lance Lighty:

We ended up keeping rigs there for about two days just because you'd hate to go do this awesome job of protecting the lodge and then pull everybody out and then two days later our log rolls into, on fire, and burns it down. So we are really cautious about and making a good plan when we pulled people out.

G. Zimmerman:

As the fire stopped growing aggressively, it looked as though it would not reach Gresham and the Portland metro area. This was very good news and the people in Gresham and Portland, including Jim, began to relax and evacuation orders subsided. Tom [Huger, 00:11:27], who you'll remember was fighting back fire from his house downstream was also seeing positive results from his tireless efforts. Tom had never evacuated. He and his son kept digging fire lines, stamping out individual spot fires, and dousing the house and lawn with the hose. And in the end when the east wind slowed, the flames had finally crested and rolled back like a falling tide.

G. Zimmerman:

Just barely sparing Tom's and the rest of the houses in Dodson, with the exception of one very unfortunate chicken coop, but the fire was still only 7% contained in any uptick or shift in wind conditions could get things roaring again within a moment's notice.

Lance Lighty:

And we knew there were some more winds coming. Mother Nature's going to push it where she wants.

G. Zimmerman:

But let's not forget, even if the wind never returned and the fire stayed put, it was still burning directly adjacent to Cascade Locks and the other communities along the river. Forgive the irresistible pun, but they were not out of the woods just yet.

Ali High:

Even five days after we were evacuated, we had no clue what was gonna happen because the fire kept jumping and then the wind kept changing and it kept going back. And then as soon as we thought we were in the clear we weren't and it would come back to Cascade Locks.

G. Zimmerman:

For communities in and around the gorge the war was not over, but a battle had been won and they all had a short moment to catch their breath. People all over the northwest hung signs in their windows with messages like pray for rain. As a historic fire season continued to ravage over much of the American West. And in that moment of reprieve from the Eagle Creek fire, everyone turned their attention back to the kid who started it all. Who was he? And how was he being handled by the legal system? Some members of the public were out for blood and the kid was receiving death threats as the locals let their emotions get the better of them.

G. Zimmerman:

Following the violent threats, police pulled back on their original plan to release his name to the public. They would keep his identity private so no harm would come to him, which only enraged people further. Looking back on it now, after tempers have cooled, we can see more clearly how emotionally charged this situation was. For some people, they felt like the gorge had been murdered and the kid was holding the smoking gun. In the end, would he have to be punished for his crime and the epic damage that it rot? If so, how and how would we all reconcile the scale and cost of this damage with the simple stupid mistake made by a 15 year old boy? That's what we're going to dig into next week on wildfire.

G. Zimmerman:

Wildfire is a production of REI, Bedrock Film Works, and Pod Peak and part of the REI Podcast Network. The podcast was written by Jim Aikman and myself, Graham Zimmerman, and it was produced by the two of us alongside Chelsea Davis and our editor and audio wizard, Evan Phillips. Wildfire is a weekly podcast presented by REI.

PART 3 OF 3 ENDS [00:46:56]

 

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