Central Oregon firefighters deployed to some of the areas hit hardest by last week’s catastrophic fires. photo courtesy Sisters-Camp Sherman RFPD
Central Oregon firefighters deployed to some of the areas hit hardest by last week’s catastrophic fires. photo courtesy Sisters-Camp Sherman RFPD
When homes and businesses are under threat from wildfire, firefighters mobilize across the state to help.

Sisters firefighters David Ward and Emily Spognard were part of Central Oregon Task Force 2 that rolled out on the afternoon of September 9 to assist with structure protection operations in Santiam Canyon, where fire driven by heavy winds out of the east had ripped through the Highway 22 corridor.

The task force included firefighters from Crook and Jefferson counties, Black Butte Ranch, Redmond and Bend. Spognard and Ward manned a small Type 6 brush engine and were assigned to stage in Idanha, where they linked up with a crew of Prineville Hotshots.

“Our primary goal was just structure protection,” Ward explained. “And then if there were some spot fires that were getting tossed around, extinguish those.”

Ward said that debris from the heavy winds littered the highway before they hit the fire zone.

“We had to cut a couple of trees out of the way, “Ward said.

Then they started seeing melted powerlines and poles on fire. Smoke became dense and visibility dropped. Once they arrived, it was clear that “fire was definitely coming down toward Idanha.”

The firefighters conducted burnout operations to create firebreaks around structures. They were aided by one bit of good fortune:

“Idanha still had working fire hydrants, we were able to be liberal with water,” he said.

Their operations were successful.

“We didn’t lose any structures in Idanha while we were there,” Ward said.

Detroit was in much tougher shape, Ward said. Smoke was very dense.

“It got to the point where you couldn’t see 15 feet in front of your bumper,” he said.

Fire crews spotted smoke coming out of basements of homes and stopped and extinguished fires, saving homes.

But Ward acknowledged that the area was very hard hit.

Damage was “pretty extensive,” he said. “Definitely it catastrophically impacted the town.”

Ward said that the damage reinforced the message that keeping properties clear and creating defensible space is critical to fire defense and survival. In a catastrophic blaze such as the one that hit the mountain towns last week, nothing can guarantee that a house is going to survive. But preparation at least gives firefighters a fighting chance.

“People that prepped their property had the best chance,” Ward said.

Ward also noted the importance of having a plan for evacuation. In the fires that struck the Cascades, residents often had only minutes to get out of their homes before the fire was upon them.

“Living in the wildland/urban interface like this, it’s something that definitely has to be in the forefront of everybody’s mind,” he said.

The Sisters firefighter has deployed to catastrophic wildfires before, including a massive blaze that devastated Sonoma, California.

As he experienced in Sonoma, Ward was astounded at the appreciation expressed to firefighters by people who had been through an almost incomprehensible trauma and loss.

He acknowledged that the impact is greater when the fire has devastated an area you grew up visiting.

“It’s a bit more of a personal fire when it’s close to home,” he said.