There’s no doubt that Oregon’s 2020 fire season was devastating. Averi Erickson caught up with local firefighters to discuss the devastation along with their unique career

Oregon had one of its worst fire seasons this year. It was one of the most destructive fire seasons. The fire season started July 5, 2020 and picked up late August/early September. There were about 1,000,000 acres burned, 3,000+ buildings destroyed, and roughly 40,000 people evacuated. 

Suzy Burkhart, Brain Smith, and Don Everingham were all local firefighters that helped with the fires. Each one spent days to weeks away from home fighting fires. 

Firefighter/Paramedic Suzy Burkhart at McMinnville Fire department went to the South Obenchain Fire. The South Obenchain fire was in Jackson County near Butte Falls, Oregon. The cause is unknown but 32,671 acres were burned.

Captain Brian Smith at Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue went to the Chehalem Valley fire. The fire was in Newberg, Oregon. It was a 1,000 acre wildland fire. It was also the largest in the fire district’s history.

Everingham, State Forest Operations Manager at the Oregon Department of Forestry said, “I went to the Green Ridge fire, Beachie Creek fire, and the Holiday Farm fire. I was away for six weeks.”

 The Green Ridge fire was in Deschutes County. It was caused by lightning and was 4,338 acres. The Beachie Creek fire was in Clackamas, Linn, and Marion counties. It merged with the Lionshead fire and it was 192,842 acres. The Holiday Farm fire was in Lane and Linn counties. It was 174,405 acres and the cause is unknown.

Photo by Averi Erickson

When fighting fires, many issues come about. Depending on the situation, some issues can be bigger than others. “An issue would be you can’t see through the smoke. Verbal communication and visual communication are a big part of fighting fires,” said Smith. Visual and verbal communication are very important when fighting fires. The firefighters need to be able to communicate with each other in order to put the fire out. 

“A big issue was how large they were. Also the number of fires all at the same time,” said Everingham. Another issue would be how many fires there are at the same time. With few firefighters, there could not be enough people to fight all the fires at once. Not everyone can be at all the fires to put them out. 

Each department takes a different approach to preparing for fires. “We hire seasonal firefighters. They are mainly college students with summers off. We tend to double up during the fire season,” said Everingham. Doubling up for the fire season is important because it’s better to have more firefighters during the worst seasons.

“Fires like these aren’t common in McMinnville. We educate the public on what to do, but it’s uncommon that we would have a wildland fire,” said Burkhart. 

With fires being uncommon in McMinnville, it’s important to keep the public educated on what could happen. “Our department goes through training. Mandatory and non-mandatory training,” said Smith. Training can seem unnecessary to some, but it’s necessary to know what to do in the worst situations. 

Many firefighters have many things go through their head while they are fighting fires. “I was happy to help. It’s also the normal way of life in the summers,” said Everingham. He expects to be gone for weeks every summer. 

“Life safety is one of the most important parts. We focus mainly on life safety and then we focus on property,” said Burkhart. When fighting fires, firefighters put other people first and make sure everyone is safe before proceeding with putting the fire out.

Motivation is a big part of doing the job. Every person has something that motivates them while they are at work. Whether it be family, friends, or the opportunity to help people there is always something there. “The opportunity to serve the public and be part of the team is what motivates me,” said Smith. Getting the opportunity to do something that could make a difference can be a big thing that motivates someone. 

“Knowing that someone’s life is in your hands and being prepared for anything motivates me,” said Burkhart. Knowing that you could potentially save someone’s life is a big part of being a firefighter as well. Many things contribute to motivation.