The Crosslake Fire Department welcomed firefighters Seth Wannebo, Jory Danielson and Paul Nelson back home Oct. 1 from their 16-day trip to Oregon to fight wildfires that started there Sept. 15.

While they didn't witness the brunt of the fires, it was still an experience for all three.

The crew met in Fergus Falls with other firefighters from Minnesota for a briefing before going west.

"The training was also a meet and greet," Danielson said. "We all got together and met and did the training, then convoyed to get to our assignment at Cave Junction, Oregon."

The drive to the fire scene took three days. It took two and a half days to return. They saw signs of the fire before ever getting close to it.

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"We drove out there in a convoy of nine apparatuses. There was smoke all the way from Montana and Idaho and we couldn't even see the mountains on the way out there." - Paul Nelson, Crosslake fire engineer

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"We drove out there in a convoy of nine apparatuses," Nelson, a fire engineer, said. "There was smoke all the way from Montana and Idaho and we couldn't even see the mountains on the way out there."

"Visibility was poor, even on our way out there," Wannebo, a captain, agreed. "You can tell it was a big event because the visibility on the way out there was pretty limited. By the time we hit Montana, it was smoking really badly."

Wind and humidity seemed to be in their favor while they were participating, saving them from the worst of the conflagration. While many likely focus on the dangers of the fire itself, it turns out the drive to Oregon struck some as dangerous.

"The danger started when we left Crosslake and we got in our apparatus," Nelson said. "We were driving through the mountains in a fire truck. It was dangerous from the get-go just to drive there."

Their arrival in Cave Junction was met with immediate welcome.

The first, second and fourth firefighters in this photo are Crosslake firefighters Paul Nelson, Jory Danielson and Seth Wannebo. They joined firefighters from across the state to help staunch the movement of the wildfires in Oregon. Submitted Photo
The first, second and fourth firefighters in this photo are Crosslake firefighters Paul Nelson, Jory Danielson and Seth Wannebo. They joined firefighters from across the state to help staunch the movement of the wildfires in Oregon. Submitted Photo

"The citizens of the area were really happy to see us roll in there," said Wannebo. "They're in a bad spot. The citizens were pretty anxious about what was going to happen. You could almost see the relief on their faces when we pulled in there. I think we made a big difference redirecting the fire and more or less giving the citizens comfort that we were there to help."

"We had support driving there," Danielson said. "People were driving by us in their cars honking and giving us a thumbs up. Somewhere in North Dakota there was another fire with two fire trucks on an overpass waving to us and wishing us good luck as we headed west. When we got to Cave Junction, people were coming into the parking lots to tell us thanks for coming with signs all over Cave Junction. It was a really humbling experience. Every one of us that went would go back."

In Oregon, the Crosslake group was largely responsible for building triage, backburning and digging in trenches ahead of the fire line.

"The forestry department had taken bulldozers and pushed trails through the mountains to try to get a break point to slow the fire down," Danielson said. "A lot of our assignment was working off those lines with backburning crews and doing structural triage and structural assessments. We went to areas that had been burnt already to put out stump fires."

Structural triage is basically going from house to house to give it a defensible value whether it was somewhat defensible, defensible or nondefensible, Wannbo said, adding, "That was the first couple of days and after that we teamed up with a task force from Washington and really got into the wildland angle of things."

Much of the fire line used to stop the wildland fires in Oregon were dug by hand due to the hard to reach terrain. Submitted Photo
Much of the fire line used to stop the wildland fires in Oregon were dug by hand due to the hard to reach terrain. Submitted Photo

Though trenches aren't uncommon in Minnesota firefighting, they were more familiar with using heavy equipment for the digging process. In the hard-to-reach stretches of the Oregon wilderness, however, that wasn't an option.

"Everything they do, they use hand tools," Nelson said. "Where we would typically use skid loaders and that type of equipment, they strictly used hand tools for doing all the work."

"We were in the mountains digging fire lines and doing backburning," Wannebo said. "It was an aggressive approach to trying to steer the fire away from town. We were doing a lot of hand digging in fire lines and running chainsaws and cutting trees down to try to navigate that fire away from town."

Terrain served as the crew's biggest challenge and teacher. The mountain and giant trees offered Crosslake firefighters new experiences sometimes requiring new precautions.

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"It was a lot of terrain we aren't used to. It's the redwood forest and mountains and that sort of thing. They don't send you into the hills unless you are packed for the worst. We had packs on with emergency shelter, our lunch, eight to nine bottles of water. That pack would get really heavy. It was really strenuous work through the terrain with those packs on our backs." - Paul Nelson, Crosslake fire engineer

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"It was a lot of terrain we aren't used to," Nelson said. "It's the redwood forest and mountains and that sort of thing. They don't send you into the hills unless you are packed for the worst. We had packs on with emergency shelter, our lunch, eight to nine bottles of water. That pack would get really heavy. It was really strenuous work through the terrain with those packs on our backs."

Wannebo added: "With limited visibility and terrain, those were some big challenges that someone from Minnesota isn't used to. It's a completely different landscape than we're used to."

"The mountain created a different fire behavior that we have not experienced here and that our crew had not experienced before," Danielson said. "We've had some wildland fire training and wildland urban interface training, but it's a whole new ballgame. Once you get there the mountains and the giant trees are amazing and create different challenges."

Firefighters learned quickly that they needed to be careful where they walked in areas where the fire had already passed, as the giant trees would leave giant holes in the ground when their stumps burned. So they had to be careful to test their footing as they advanced through areas with poor visibility.

"We had great support from our communities," Danielson said. "I want to thank the city of Crosslake and Chief Chip Lohmiller for allowing us the opportunity as well as the state of Minnesota, the state fire marshal's office in the state of Oregon. We couldn't have asked for better treatments as far as creating safety and accommodation."

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.