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Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue firefighters do their part to tackle wildfires

Local firefighters battle fires in locales across the state

SUBMITTED PHOTO - A Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue fighter snapped this photo of a TVF&R truck helping to battle fires in Warm Springs earlier this month. When Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue firefighter Jesse Fitzpatrick arrived in Warm Springs, he was greeted with sobering words.

“Good news — you’re in the right spot,” Fitzpatrick’s task force leader said. “The bad news is that a fire is coming over that ridge in 15 minutes. Get ready.”

Fitzpatrick is one of 18 firefighters from the agency that were sent on special assignment this month to help battle wildfires across the state.

So far, TVF&R has sent four teams of firefighters to assist in wildfire relief across the state, helping to tackle the Cornet-Windy Ridge Fire near Baker City, the Canyon Creek Complex fire near John Day and the County Line 2 Fire in Warm Springs. SUBMITTED PHOTO - Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue has sent more than a dozen firefighters to help tackle wild fires all across the state, including John Day, Warm Springs and Baker City.

Oregon's Conflagration Act allows the state’s fire marshal to mobilize firefighters from all over Oregon to help out in wildfire situations.

Fitzpatrick, five other TVF&R firefighters and crews from Hillsboro, Forest Grove and the Washington County District 2 fire districts joined hundreds of firefighters in Warm Springs, working the front lines and helping ensure that people and businesses were safe.

“Our primary purpose is structural protection — homes and businesses,” Fitzpatrick said. “We do a lot of work with the Department of Forestry to control the fires, and help put out hot spots and travel with them as they do back burning.”

Back burning is a firefighting technique that fights fire with fire, Fitzpatrick said. By strategically burning areas in the wildfire’s path, it helps to keep the fire contained and, eventually, burn itself out.

“We protected structures for five or six hours straight, right after arriving,” Fitzpatrick said. “We worked until midnight, then slept for six hours and did the same thing the next day.”

Ready at a moment’s notice

This year set a record for TVF&R, said spokesman Stefan Myers. The agency sent more deployments of firefighters to fight wildfires this month than ever before.

“It was an all-call,” Myers said. “Every department had to do something and we came together to create these teams to go out and support where we could.”

TVF&R has been on call to fight wildfires for years, Myers said, but these last few wildfire seasons have seen an uptick in the number of wildfires TVF&R crews are called to handle.

“Now, it’s a regular rotation that if you’re on the wildland team, you’ll get deployed,” Myers said. “The last three or four seasons, we’ve been regularly asked.”

There are about 50 members of TVF&R’s wildfire team, ready at a moment’s notice to deploy for a week or more across the state.

Fitzpatrick, who is currently stationed at Fire Station 67 in Bethany, came to TVF&R nine years ago and joined the agency’s wildfire team last year.

“I wanted to try something new and different,” he said. “It’s unique. You take a group of people from all these different areas and they come together to solve a problem that’s affecting hundreds of people.”

Myers said that sentiment has been shared by several of the firefighters who have been deployed on wildfire teams over the past few years.

“You come together with other departments and the patches on your uniforms don’t matter anymore. Everybody is there for one goal. You’re there to do what you signed up for, to save lives and help people.”

While Fitzpatrick was gone, smoke from wildfires across the Northwest blew into the Portland area, turning the sun a hazy red and prompting thousands to call 9-1-1 warning of smells of smoke.

Wildfire conditions are unusual in the Portland-area, but Fitzpatrick said that TVF&R firefighters are trained in wildfire techniques regularly.

That wildfire training helps in their work in the suburbs, too, Fitzpatrick said.

When the Portland & Western railroad trestle in Sherwood caught fire earlier this month, it sparked a brush fire that burned acres of grassland. Firefighters used wildfire techniques to tackle that blaze.

“It builds skills for what we’re seeing in our own district,” Myers said.

Previously, firefighters from TVF&R would be stationed in cities in the paths of wildfires and would serve as a backup if front line firefighters were unsuccessful, Myers said. That relationship has changed.

“We’re a valuable resource sent long distances to help,” Myers said. “Now, we create defensible spaces around communities because we have that experience in our day-to-day work, and they have started to integrate us into the front lines so we can meet that fire before it ever comes close to the community.”

It’s hard, dirty, smoky work, Fitzpatrick said, but it’s worth it.

“It’s completely different than what we do here day-to-day,” Fitzpatrick said.

Everything about fighting wildfires is different, Fitzpatrick said — the terrain, the size of the blazes, having to adjust strategies for wind patterns.

Not to mention the wildlife.

“We had a whole training about rattlesnakes and where to look for them,” Fitzpatrick said.

When Fitzpatrick arrived in Warm Springs, the fire had already burned 50,000 acres. That fire — which is expected to be contained by this weekend — has burned more than 64,000 acres as of The Times’ press deadline.

Fitzpatrick returned to regular duty at his Bethany fire station this week, but said he’s ready if more wildfires break out this summer.

“Everything’s packed and ready to go if I have to go again,” he said.