August 23, 2002 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

When Oregon is burning, firefighters and equipment respond from wherever they are needed.

Two years ago, the Oregon State Fire Marshal's office decided that more coordination in bringing together paid and volunteer firefighters and equipment in times of conflagrations was needed.

So the call went out to put together Structural Protection Overhead Teams. These groups of experienced rural and urban firefighters and management personnel can be quickly brought together with their duties preplanned and in place.

The teams work with firefighters to protect homes and outbuildings.

Firefighters and department personnel had to apply to the State Fire Marshal for a position on the teams. In La Grande, Fire Chief Bruce Weimer and Fire Safety Coordinator Lois Rieke sent in their applications.

Both were accepted.

"I'm the operations section chief for the Green Team," explains Weimer.

Translated, that means that Weimer works under the Green Team's chief taking care of equipment that comes from various fire departments to the scene of a wildfire or other natural catastrophe that's threatening human-built


Rieke also serves on an overhead team, in her case the Blue Team, as an incident information officer. She returned

earlier this week from a week-long stint as an information officer at the Biscuit Fire.

"I drove there," she said, noting that it can be hard to get to Southwest Oregon from here.

But her trip wasn't as far to the fire as that of the firefighters who came from Australia, New Zealand and far corners of the United States.

Assigned to a post near Brookings, Rieke said her job was to integrate with the team of federal information officers already at the fire, help transition a new federal team in, man fire information tables in area communities, work around homes in the area getting fire protection information out to the public, and work with the media, often conducting media tours.

"My primary duty is leading media tours," she said. "The problem at the Biscuit Fire is getting the media to the fire line."

Since the fire line is being built along ridgetops and at a distance from the fire itself, she was often giving tours to places where no fire could be seen.

Working the Biscuit Fire presented her with a challenge in her own perceptions, she noted, since her work post was just outside Brookings, at a location which was usually foggy and cold. Trying to keep in mind the nearness of the nation's largest wildfire, she said, was tough.

Both Weimer and Rieke see their duties on the fire marshal's overhead teams as a way to contribute without threatening this community's immediate safety.

"We live in an area were we could have a similar situation," Weimer explains, thinking about this summer's big

fires. And, he adds, the La Grande department's "first duty is here."

While it would be difficult for a team of La Grande firefighters to take an engine and be gone for up to 14 days, the department can still function efficiently if he or Rieke go and serve for short stretches of time.

"When I'm not here, the duty officer (on each department shift) is in charge, and the city manager is there for any administrative emergencies," he said.

And the city is reimbursed for their time away from their regular jobs by the State Fire Marshal's Office, Weimer notes.

Weimer and Rieke both saw action last summer when wildfires burned near Imnaha.

While wildland firefighters and Forest Service hotshot crews did backburns near the community to turn the spreading flames, Weimer made sure the crews and fire trucks that came from 15 other communities were standing by each home near the flames. Rieke, meanwhile, made sure media calls were answered with accurate information about where the fires were burning, and what property was threatened.

Having the structural protection overhead teams are, Weimer said, "a really effective way to fight fires threatening homes."

Wildland firefighters don't have the training and equipment — turnouts and breathing apparatus, for example — to be deal with fire in buildings, he said. The overhead teams can arrive quickly with plans in place and with equipment and trained firefighters to handle those situations.

Standing outside La Grande's new fire hall and looking up at the treed slopes of the Blue Mountains, Weimer again emphasizes the need to participate in such state-organized teams.

"We may need them here one of these days."

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