For the first time since 2002, Oregon National Guard crews are working fire lines in the state.
About 120 men and women split into six crews to pound through ground that had already been scorched by the Canyon Creek Complex fires more than a week ago. They were looking for hot spots and other dangers, such as damaged trees that could drop onto roads or onto future forestry and logging crews.
For many, Wednesday was their first time in the field after limited classroom training.
But not all.
Erik Coffey, of Salem, is a soldier in the guard and a student at Chemeketa Community College, currently in between semesters. Coffey, who has a wildland firefighting background, said he may choose to follow that career path in the future.
That made him a leader on the crew Thursday that was doing mop up work on the north edge of the fire. Their work was slow, but steady.
“We’re just trying to do whatever we can,” said Coffey. “A lot of us don’t have much experience, but we’re finding ways to be useful.”
They arrived Wednesday and received brand new yellow and green wildland firefighting uniforms, the only clean ones in fire camp.
Their axes, shovels and Pulaskis were out-of-the-box new, and had never been swung.
Initially, there was some confusion on a lack of supervisors and a clean game plan, but once they got marching orders, the progress was made clear.
Phillip Raby is one of those supervisors giving marching orders. He is an employee of the U.S. Forest Service based in North Carolina but was dispatched West to deal with the growing number of wildfires in the region.
The National Guard troops, he said, are quick learners.
“The discipline and the motivation are already there,” he said. “That’s key. That’s a big part of the job out here.”
They have good communication skills, he said; they listen to orders and work hard. They’re so good at that, he has to sometimes remind himself how new they are to the field.
“I’ve been with a lot of my crew for 15, 20 years.” he said. “I can point them in a direction and they know what to do.”
It’s not the same with the fresh-out-of-the-box crew, Raby said. Yet.
“They just don’t know the tactics and the techniques yet,” he said. “They need a little more explanation on how best to accomplish what I tell them.”
But day two was much better than day one, said Coffey. And he thinks by the end of their minimum 14-day deployment, his crew will reach their potential. At that time, they could be joined by another 250 National Guard troops currently going through expedited firefighting training, or they could be shipped to another fire, according to the Oregon National Guard.