‘Like entering hell itself’: Battling the Riverside Fire as a volunteer firefighter
With the many hardships we are facing as a state, nation and world I think this new year, we should remember those who give so much to help others. If there is one thing I could ask to my fellow dentists: Be in touch with your community.
It was Sept. 7, 2020 , while spending the evening with my family on my parents’ farm in Colton, Oregon, when a strong wind picked up stirring up thick clouds of dust. The horses in their pastures instantly went wild bucking and kicking as if sensing some impending doom. Rushing out into the windstorm with halters and led ropes we led the horses into the barn and closed the door from the windstorm. Never realizing the true danger coming from this dry hot wind.
That evening, when my wife and I drove home back to our house in Oregon City, the winds had been so strong that even our suburban neighborhood was out of power. As we were getting ready for bed I noticed on my phone app for fire alarms that it mentioned that there was a brush fire on the road next to my parents’ farm. Oh no, I thought, with this wind and storm, any small fire could grow in minutes. I instantly called all my parents and siblings home and cell phones. There were no answers.
My wife and I jumped into our jeep and with white knuckles raced back to the farm. Finally after more frantic calls, my dad finally answered. They had been all been asleep. On the phone I shouted:
“There is a fire by the Seed Orchard on Unger and Bauer, do you see anything?”
“No everything is clear,” my dad said, adding that when we left, they had lost their power so that was why nobody was answering the home phone.
As we turned around the corner approaching the junction of the two roads of Unger and Baurer we saw the flashing lights of a Canby Fire truck, a town almost an hour away. All resources had been called to a mill fire earlier in the town of Molalla. As we turned onto Baurer Road it was like entering hell itself.
What was once tall green Douglas Firs that lined the road were now orange lines of fire climbing up the talk trunks hundreds of feet in the air like hellish candles. Behind the blazing forest fire, I could make out a dark black field with an orange serpentine line dancing across it while raging wind sparks and ash blew against the jeep windshield like being in a black, orange, and grey Dante’s Inferno.
With frantic voices still on the phone with my family, I told them that the entire forest is on fire. As I turned into their driveway a firetruck was just in front of us telling everyone on the road to evacuate ASAP. Hard to believe this was the same spot, just less than two hours ago, where we were having so much fun fill with laughter. And now I looked at my childhood home wondering if I would see it again.
How do you evacuate a family home and farm when you have only minutes? By the light of flashlights and cellphones, my family rushed to throw the few personal belongings like photo albums, a couple keepsakes and important paperwork into baskets and boxes while others hooked the truck and horse trailer. With only minutes to leave, my sister, who is a second year dental student at Oregon Health and Science University, still grabbed her dental articulator and homework tucked next to parents wedding photos.
When you have a three-horse trailer and need to move 13 horses, the math might not add up. But never subtract the power of a community coming together. Family friends with trucks and horse trailers instantly showed up that early morning to help with the evacuation. There is a powerful bond and independent drive for the rural community to help depend on each other. Even with the extra room, four of the horses could not fit so all we could do was open the gates and leave them in the large dirt areas in our field and hope we could return. In the dark early morning we left the place I had called home since we moved here in 1998. My heart broke for my family, we had all worked this place for decades, pouring so much sweat, love and toil into the soil, with the house, barns and arenas we had built to make an equestrian faculty. All looking at it one last time wondering if the place would only exist in our memories and in the distance the flashing lights of the heroes who were arriving to be the angels facing this incoming hell.
Each passing day the conditions got worse and more chaotic as the fire grew. Then we found that this fire, later called the Riverside Fire, had been burning for days in the wilderness and was moving northwest approaching the rural communities. The fire of several hundred acres on Unger Road was nothing compared to this fire coming over the mountains threatening the entire south side of Clackamas County.
Oregon City looked like an apocalypse was upon us as trucks, trailers, with everything in between were clogging the roads and highways trying to escape. Cows were placed in makeshift pens in downtown Oregon City. When the sky was still clear you can almost see the colors of white, red, black, and pale dancing and prancing in the fire clouds like the four horsemen, but that was the last time we saw it before the entire area was socked in thick dark smoke. Pollution rose to levels never recorded in our area.
A few days later, on a Thursday morning, our family drove back to check on the property. Many of our neighbors had stayed behind and were driving up and down the road putting out fires, checking for looters, and helping people evacuate. I asked to be dropped off at the fire department. Many of the volunteers had been working straight for four days straight. Even if I could help out one day before going back to work could be helpful.
We were going to replace an engine crew on the fire lines so the four of us packed into our department’s pickup and began the drive to the fire. The entire sky was grey and thick with smoke as we advanced down the roads. Everything looked like a dental radiograph with blacks, greys and white colors covering the ground, I thought we passed a pile of stones or what looked like cemeteries but then realized we were now passing the cinderblocks of burnt home foundations.
Police officers were patrolling the roads and a pair of officers were cleaning burnt wood and debris off the road. Seeing the first responders and especially the police officers risking their lives in these conditions reminded me that first responders and the police are heroes.
We made it to the fire engine and changed out the exhausted crews. I filled up my canteens and adjusted my emergency fire shelter on my harness before heading out to defend the line. The fire was advancing through the woods but wasn’t burning very hot and it was slow-moving. The plan was to stop the fire from crossing the gravel road that went up to a residential home instead of wasting time and energy working crews to death trying to stop it in the forest.
Although it might have been calmer here at the other end of the property another group of firefighters were watching the fire torch (spread into the trees). We watched the fire for several hours, I was hoping the vast majority of the fire was moving as slow and manageable as this one. I was hopeful. We got this. We can stop this!
Then we heard it on the radio. The observation plane over the Riverside Fire and Beachie Creek Fire noticed that the fires were within miles of colliding and the conditions were now too dangerous and everyone needed to get to a safety zone immediately. They didn’t have to tell us twice. I remember getting into the engine with my officer and apparatus operator, and waited for the other crews to get into theirs. It seemed like they were moving so slowly with a less sense of urgency but in calm orderly fashion our convoy of made its way to the safety zone.
For many of the firefighters, once at the safety zone, it was their first uneasy rest in days. Friends were breaking down in tears as they were telling their wives what items they needed to get out of the house since they had been out fighting fires. One of the firefighters, a janitor for this school district whom I’ve known since middle school, was calmly lying in the grass, happy for a rest, never mind that his home was right in the path of the fire. They divided us up into two task forces in case we needed to evacuate again and went over maps and other forms of egress to escape.
Little did I know that this would be my only day on the fire lines. I was activated with the Oregon Army National Guard and worked in the Command Post in Clackamas County for several weeks but in that one day on the fire lines, I still cannot believe what happened.
I found out later that the observers flying over the fires were worried that when the two fires collided, their columns of heated gasses and unburnt particles would reach the freezing level in the atmosphere and then they could collapse and fall back down to earth creating gas and winds like an atomic bomb or volcano spreading heated gas, ash, and particulate for miles. This could have destroyed almost the entire populated area of Clackamas County.
Sometimes you need to experience hell to see the true miraculous events and the saints and saviors around you. When my family was evacuating our horses, strangers from miles away showed up in with trucks and horse trailers, using social media and word-of-mouth to locate and help people evacuate livestock and animals. In the town of Molalla logging crews and citizens with their own equipment fought the fire, making national news as the Hillbilly Brigade. Of the many firefighters fighting the Unger Road fire next to my parent’s property was the son of a firefighter friend who was killed in a logging accident when I graduated dental school in 2016. (see my first blog about working public health). They were some of the individuals who was in the fire cutting down torching trees so they didn’t spread to crown (top part of the forest canopy). One of the most dangerous jobs but saved the town and forest.
Other neighbors filled their pickup trucks with irrigation systems and were driving down the roads putting out spot fires before they spread or stayed behind protecting neighbors’ homes and property.
Many of you will probably never realize that your homes, businesses, families, and patients are protected and served by volunteer firefighters. Seventy percent of all firefighters are volunteers and every year the average age is getting older and older. These individuals would gladly take any support, resources or even thanks for their selfless service.
Give a call to your local fire department. If you know young individuals interested in medicine or dentistry, look into mentoring them, help them network and volunteer, and gain some experience while they are going to college. If your dental office sponsors a local nonprofits or you are interested in donating to a charity, look into what local department needs, especially if they are a rural or volunteer department. The many people in these departments across the United States remind me of an old country song by Alabama.
They wear so many faces; show up in the strangest places
To grace us with their mercy, in our time of need
Oh I believe there are angels among us
Sent down to us from somewhere up above
They come to you and me in our darkest hours
To show us how to live, to teach us how to give
To guide us with the light of love
Dr. Casey Norlin is a New Dentist Now guest blogger and went to Oregon Health and Science University. He comes from a rural background and lives in Oregon City, Oregon, with his beautiful wife. Casey works in public health, has been a volunteer firefighter/advanced EMT for Colton Rural Fire District, an assistant professor for OHSU SOD, and is an Army dentist for the ORANG 41st Infantry Brigade. As of now he still hasn’t decided what he wants to do when he “grows up.”