More than 8,500 firefighters have put their lives on the line combatting the devastating wildfires that broke out in early December in Southern California. Thirteen of those firefighters are from Union County.
The firefighters are part of a 17-member Union-Umatilla County Oregon State Fire Marshal Strike Team. They first fought the 15,619-acre Creek Fire for four days before being reassigned to the Thomas Fire, which began near Santa Paula above Thomas Aquinas College on Dec. 4 and has now burned 272,000 acres, making it the second largest California wildfire in modern history.
“It really came at you. It was quite a sight to see. Its sheer size was amazing,” said Larry Wooldridge, chief of the La Grande Rural Fire Department, who discussed the fire via cellphone Tuesday afternoon while returning to Union County with the members of his team.
Wooldridge said the fire, powered by tinder-dry conditions and strong winds, “was explosive.”
He said that the strike team had to closely monitor the fast-moving fire. The team never found itself in a particularly perilous situation, which Wooldridge credits to good planning.
Along with the fire chief, the team consisted of members of the La Grande, Imbler Rural and North Powder fire departments plus four from the Pendleton area. The firefighters put in a grueling schedule, working 24-hour shifts before receiving 24 hours off.
“It took some getting used to. That was a long time to work without a break,” said JB Brock, a member of the La Grande Rural Fire Department and the Union County Emergency Services manager.
Brock said that in Oregon, firefighters taking on wildfires typically work 16-hour shifts.
He described his experience in Southern California as unforgettable.
“We saw incredible fire behavior,” he said.
Brock explained that it is “very atypical” to see fires of this magnitude in Southern California so late in the year.
In addition to direct firefighting, the Union-Umatilla County strike team did mop up work during its two-week venture in Southern California. It was also assigned to protect agricultural property and helped save a number of avocado and lemon crops.
Brock said the farmers were very thankful for the work firefighters did to save their crops.
“They were incredibly grateful,” he said.
The firefighter said that blazes move fast in Southern California in part because of the heavy chaparral brush the region has, which is “conducive to fast-moving brush fires.”
The Union-Umatilla County team was one of 15 Oregon teams sent to fight the Southern California wildfires. The strike teams were demobilized on Tuesday and began returning to Oregon because of progress made in containing the wildfires.
“We are extremely pleased with the performance of our strike teams,” Oregon State Fire Marshal Jim Walker said in a news release. “Our teams have played an important role in helping our neighbors to the south, and all of Oregon can be proud of the professionalism and effectiveness of our resources while dealing with these difficult fires.”