SOMBER MOOD ACCOMPANIES FIREFIGHTERS' RETURN TO LA GRANDE

June 24, 2002 12:00 am

By Ted Kramer and Dick Mason

The Observer

Twenty-nine hours after the crash of a van that took the lives of four La Grande-based firefighters, the other men and women who made up the 60-person contingent returned home.

Two buses rolled quietly into the Grayback Forestry complex on Highway 30 at about 10:10 p.m. Saturday. The gates closed behind the buses.

Inside the compound and just as as quietly, the firefighters made their way to their vehicles and quickly headed out, some shielding their faces from the cameras and reporters who had assembled.

It was a somber, quiet moment. The firefighters, all members of a Grayback convoy headed to Colorado's Hayman fire, had seen a van carrying 11 crew members run off Interstate 70 and roll four times. Four firefighters were dead; three others were critically injured.

There would be no firefighting on this trip for members of Grayback Crew 80.

The group spent Friday night in Parachute, Colo., just a few miles from where the accident occurred. On Saturday they gathered for a meeting and a brief service to honor the dead and injured crew members.

At 7 p.m., 51 of the 60 crew members who made the trip to Colorado were flown from Grand Junction to Pendleton by charter jet. From there the firefighters were bused to La Grande.

Reporters were advised that crew members probably wouldn't feel like stopping and talking.

None did. No one seemed surprised.

"They've been through a lot,'' said U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Denne, who was asked by Grayback Forestry to represent the company before the media. "Our hearts go out to those who have family or friends affected by this tragedy.''

The Grayback crews will be offered stress and grief debriefing sessions, Denne said. When the firefighters will be allowed to return to the line is not known. "We want to support the firefighters and families as best we can.''

The Grayback crews are not Forest Service employees, but because they help make up the interagency crews that battle fires throughout the country, they are "an extension of our firefighting family,'' Denne said.

"We share their pain and we'll do what we can for them.''

Earlier in the day, at the Northeast Oregon Fire Dispatch Center at the Union County Airport, other Forest Service employees echoed those feelings.

The tragedy that occurred "hits particularly hard,'' said Rick Schricker of Baker City, who was working at the fire cache. "My son's a firefighter and I used to fight fire. There's a sort of brotherhood of firefighters. It hurts to lose anybody.''

Miles Hancock of the dispatch center said "everyone is feeling pretty devastated.''

"First there was the tanker accident, now this. It's hard to explain your feelings — you have to just keep plugging along. But there's no question this has affected a lot of lives.''

"It has been somber. It was a real shock to the fire fighting community. The firefighting community is very tight,'' said La Grande District Ranger Kurt Wiedenmann. "The Forest Service feels that we are one family.''

Many people in the community know the families affected by Friday's accident, Wiedenmann said.

"There will be a ripple affect throughout the area,'' he said.

Tim Keith, district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said that he feels for the leaders of Grayback Forestry.

"I can't think of a finer company. It is outstanding,'' he said. "They have worked so hard. The quality of their service is consistently among the best in the Northwest.''