Forrest Welk
The La Grande Observer

Burnt River High School’s fire camp was bustling with 872 firefighters, medics and supply crews on Thursday — all in an effort to stop the Rail Fire.

The Burnt River football team ignored all of that in the center of campus. Their well-kept football field was taped off from visiting workers. Smoke filled the distance as players practiced that afternoon.

“It doesn’t bother us any,” Head Coach John Belveal said of the crews. “People are really supportive.”

The Burnt River Bulls seven-man squad isn’t enough to fill an entire football team. Because of that, they co-op with Prairie City High School.

Even then, their schedule only consists of JV games for the upcoming season. That doesn’t hinder Belveal’s motivation as he possibly enters his final season as head coach.

“My seniors wanted me to coach again this year, and I said ‘I’ll do it one more time,’” John said. “Just for them. This is it for me.”

Some of the players have grown up around fires their entire lives. Crews have used the school grounds as a strategic camp in previous years, including for the El Dorado fire last year.

Firefighters were sent home last season just three days before Burnt River/Prairie City’s first home game.

There’s a chance they might still be here this year for 2016’s season opener. If the crews haven’t wrapped up the 60 percent-contained fire by Sept. 23, workers could take a break to watch football when the Bulls play Monument/Dayville.

“That would be the biggest crowd we’ve had in — ever,” senior quarterback Tyler Belveal said.

Whatever the conditions, Coach Belveal’s team is prepared to play.

“We’re getting used to having smoke here in football season,” he said.

The team dressed in their blue helmets and padding for practice, which is already full contact. They ran a variety of drills, including high stepping through tires to retrieve a loose ball at the end.

Just outside the edge of the football field, Jeff Behringer and Andrew Williamson were playing football themselves — albeit a simple game of catch.

Both of them serve as medics in the fire crews, and both work the night shift. They have trouble sleeping in the daytime and sometimes watch the football practices.

“It’s a slice of reality, so it’s nice to see,” Behringer said. “A lot of these camps are out in the middle of nowhere.”

“We want to scrimmage them,” he jokingly added.

Both men have been away from home since the camp was formed on Aug. 1.

They said they appreciate the work because it’s been a slow fire season, though they do miss home.

Despite the long trips, the duo enjoys their line of work, which they started 15 years ago. They’ve worked together for the past four years.

Keeping with their similar backgrounds, they got into the business partially due to their experience in sports. Williamson was a University of Oregon lacrosse player and Behringer played hockey.

“You really look at (firefighting) as such a team environment,” Behringer said. “It’s kind of the same concept. It’s natural. We get a lot of athletes.”

See more in the Aug. 29, 2016 issue of the Baker City Herald.