Lost soldier's buddy battles Douglas County blazes

by: COURTESY OF OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY - Wearing full wildland firefighting gear, Cody Brown stands near the fire line of the Rabbit Mountain blaze outside Roseburg.Two years ago, Cody Brown stood on the Hillsboro Airport tarmac in a blue Forest Grove Fire & Rescue uniform, waiting for the body of his buddy to return home from the war in Afghanistan.

Brown tried to remain stoic — but as the American flag-bedecked coffin of Navy hospital corpsman Ryley Gallinger-Long appeared in the doorway of a silver jet, his face crumbled. Ryley and Cody had been friends for most of their lives, and now the young men, both 19 at the time, would have to give up their shared dream of military service followed by dual careers in the firefighting field.

Or would they?

Brown came back to Washington County Friday from a three-week stint battling southern Oregon’s Douglas County fires, which have scorched more than 45,000 forested acres this summer.

He arrived home in Forest Grove two days before the second anniversary of Gallinger-Long’s death on Aug. 11, 2011, when the 2010 Forest Grove High School graduate was killed in action in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.

The calendar coincidence was not lost on Brown, now 21.

“We were cadets together at FGF&R,” Brown said Monday, fighting back tears. “We were going to go serve in the military first, me as an Air Force pararescue apprentice and he as a Navy medic.

“Ryley and I had an unwritten plan to meet back up after that and become firefighters together.”

Brown thinks about Gallinger-Long every day, he said. Still stung by the loss of his friend, he took a job last June with the Oregon Department of Forestry and is spending his second season as a wildland firefighter, going wherever the agency sends him to help keep lightning-sparked conflagrations at bay.

When he heads to the fire line, he wears a helmet with the letters RGL and the numbers 8/11/11 emblazoned on its side.

Lightning-sparked fires

Brown was working at Dutch Bros. Coffee in Forest Grove when the opportunity to respond to Oregon’s seasonal fires presented itself last year. He’d been discharged from the Air Force due to an ankle injury and had taken training as an emergency medical technician to broaden his employment options.

He was looking for something meaningful to do, and the ODF needed a few good men and women.

This year the fire season started July 5, and strike teams assembled soon after. Brown and Skyler Hoefer, also part of the FGF&R family, joined the team from northwest Oregon.

Their unit included two firefighters from Astoria, two from Tillamook and two from Molalla. They mobilized July 26.

“We head out when there’s weather coming in,” said Brown, noting that conditions to watch for include low humidity, dry brush and building activity in the atmosphere. “If lightning’s predicted, there’s pretty much going to be a fire.”

Once his team reached the outskirts of Roseburg and made camp near Glendale, the situation became clear during an initial briefing: there had been 52 confirmed lightning strikes in the area within a couple of hours that first day.

“We kind of hit the ground running,” said Brown. “They sent us straight out to one of the fires, which quickly progressed from 30 acres to 50 acres.”

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: KATHLEEN ROHDE - Cody Brown of Forest Grove, 21, talks about his experience fighting wildland fires in Douglas County Monday at the News-Times office.Brown and his team members thought the blaze, known as the Rabbit Mountain Fire, “was going to jump the ridge,” so they established a “wet line” by running hose all the way around the flames and spraying the perimeter in an effort to slow their spread.

“That stopped it for a little while,” said Brown, who wears boots so heavy “you can walk on coals” and carries a personal fire shelter while in the field. “We worked all night — that first shift was 24 hours.”

The main Douglas Complex Fire, 400 to 500 acres wide, was burning just outside Riddle. Several helicopters were summoned to dump water on growing hotspots.

By Aug. 3, the Rabbit Mountain, Dad’s Creek and Farmer’s Creek fires had consumed more than 32,500 acres, threatening area homes and causing ODF officials to consider calling for evacuations. About 2,337 firefighters worked to save old-growth timber and, potentially, human lives.

“There were a lot of snag problems,” said Brown, describing trees that were dead but not yet on the ground, providing potent tinder for the fires. “We had one fall and it knocked into a truck,” missing a comrade by only feet.

“You get used to it, but it’s pretty scary sometimes,” Brown said of the danger.

Always on call

After working 18 days in a row, mostly on night shift, Brown was glad to be relieved of his duty — at least for now. “Skyler’s still down there,” he said of Hoefer. “He wanted to extend.”

Back in town, Brown visited with family and friends and awaited his next call-up by the Forest Service.

“You’re always on call during fire season,” he observed.

While working 40 hours a week as a wildland fire suppression specialist for the ODF’s Forest Grove fire district — which extends from Vernonia to North Plains to Willamina — Brown is looking to his future.

He’s applying for the Oregon National Guard’s infantry program and biding his time until the next deployment opportunity arises.

He’s well aware that both the National Guard and Forest Service duties pose serious risks.

“In firefighting, our focus is on safety more than anything else. You’re supposed to fight fire aggressively, but they drill into our heads that there aren’t any trees worth the value of a human life,” Brown said.

Still, “a fire can go from being in your control to completely not in your control very quickly,” he added. “It’s definitely exciting, but things can go bad. We had two people killed down there while I was online — a tree faller and a guy returning a water tender from a night shift.”

A serious case of poison oak, scratches and bruises were the most Brown had to deal with this time around.

Still, suffering through Gallinger-Long’s death hasn’t dissuaded him from facing dangerous situations — even the unpredictable kind that befell the famed Granite Mountain Hotshots, who lost 19 members when flames enveloped them near Phoenix, Ariz., June 30.

Whether in the military, medical or fire arena, “I’d still like to do something that helps people, no matter what,” Brown said.

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