USA/United Kingdom– It was not in the original plan to put five firefighters from densely populated southern England on rural Oregon’s fire lines.
They were simply able, willing and trained bodies that appeared when the Pacific Northwest’s need for firefighters had outstripped the supply.
The group was in Sisters as part of a two-week exchange program that included training in wildland firefighting and the command structure used to manage major hazards.
As the British firefighters were in the final phase of the wildland training, the Oregon State Fire Marshal sent local firefighters to help protect the homes and structures threatened by the Canyon Creek Complex south of John Day.
Since the Canyon Creek wildfires began Aug. 12 with two fires caused by lightning, it has claimed 39 homes and dozens more outlying buildings and barns.
On Tuesday, the English firefighters were quickly put to work digging a fire line around a blaze sparked by a windborne ember.
“The resources have been stretched so far out here that there was no one to do that work,” said Tim Craig, deputy chief of Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District. “We just showed up at the right time.”
A British accent could be heard over the radio as David Hodge, a station manager for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, called in bucket drops from a helicopter.
The firefighters from Hampshire and the Isle of Wight helped the Black Mesa Hotshots clear brush, passing it from one to another like a bucket line.
“It was satisfying that we were able to contribute to the operation and not be a hindrance,” said Glenn Bowyer, also a Hampshire station manager.
The state fire marshal’s operation at Canyon Creek ended Wednesday morning, and the British group planned to return to Sisters to finish their planned itinerary. That is, unless another emergency arises.
No firefighting crews from outside the John Day area were standing by to help protect structures Wednesday afternoon.
The fire, now at about 75,000 acres, has been pressing to the north and northeast, where about 20 people have been told to be ready to evacuate their homes at a moment’s notice, said Tracy Weaver, a spokeswoman with the incident command.
“It’s on a scale that’s unimaginable to us,” Hodge said of the wildfires in the Western U.S.
The wildfires the English firefighters respond to pose huge risks for urban infrastructure such as communications equipment and rail lines, but they rarely grow too large, in part because Hampshire is much more densely populated than rural Oregon.
“It’s like chalk and cheese,” Hodge said.
Still, the firefighters found plenty of lessons to take home, ranging from how to scale command structures up and down gracefully to tactics for air support and ways to integrate erosion control into the cleanup following a fire.
“One thing that has struck us is the professionalism,” Bowyer said. “No one is complaining that they’re tired or worn out.