What a hectic week it was for wildland firefighters.
And what a dramatic illustration of how vital the efforts of the volunteers and other local residents who rush toward, rather than away from, the dangerous flames.
Lightning started two blazes in northern Baker County. The first, on Sunday, July 31, burned about 416 acres between Thief Valley Reservoir and the Medical Springs Highway. The second, started in the early evening of Wednesday, Aug. 3, was about nine miles to the east, near Keating. It burned about 200 acres.
In both cases, volunteers from rural fire protection districts played key roles in quickly stopping the fires and protecting nearby homes. Local ranchers also were among the first to arrive at the Keating fire.
Although no residents had to evacuate, the Baker County Sheriff’s Office did issue Level 2 notifications — meaning residents should be ready to leave at any time — during both blazes.
Working with crews from public agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Forestry and U.S. Forest Service, volunteers from local protection districts — there are more than half a dozen in Baker County — are a vital cog in the firefighting machine. And because the volunteers are local residents, they’re often the first to arrive at a fire.
Unfortunately many of these districts have struggled over the past decade or so to recruit replacements for volunteers who, often due to age, can no longer do the dangerous and physically demanding work of combatting wildfires.
Buzz Harper, longtime chief of the Keating Rural Fire Protection District, took the lead on Wednesday’s blaze, arriving just five minutes or so after he and a local rancher, Curt Jacobs, both saw smoke following a lightning storm. Harper said he’s pleased that there’s a group of young volunteers, in some districts, who are enthusiastic about helping protect their neighbors’ properties.
As this past week has shown, with its frightening scenes of wind-driven flames racing through desiccated grass and sage, those volunteers are a bulwark against potential tragedy. Everyone, even those whose homes and livelihoods weren’t close to the flames, should be grateful for their selfless dedication.
— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor