PORTLAND, Ore. — Griffin Rojo was headed north on Interstate 5 Monday morning, having just left the Kincaid Fire in Sonoma County and anxious to get home to his baby daughter in Oregon, when his firefighting crew got another call. Since they were already headed that way, could they stop by the Ranch Fire just outside of Red Bluff, a town of 14,000 people in Northern California?
The crew ended up spending the night in their engine, dressed and ready to respond if the fire got out of control. To pass time, they listened to the radio, with Rojo quizzing his buddies: What’s the name of this song? Who’s the artist? What other hits have they had?
They didn’t have good cell reception, which meant they couldn’t trade texts or calls with their families. Earlier Monday, Rojo had asked his wife, Susan, to share some photos of their dogs. She’d already been sending him photos and videos of their 6-month old daughter, Audrey.
A little after 7 a.m., after being up for 36 hours, Rojo’s crew headed to their hotel to shower and sleep. They’d be back at it the next day.
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Rojo, 34, has been a firefighter for almost a decade in Oregon, but this was his first trip to help California battle the big blazes that have been popping up all over the Golden State.
After a few years of historic fire damage — including last fall’s Camp Fire in Butte County that killed 88 people — California is again fighting major fires that have already resulted in thousands of evacuated and displaced residents, hundreds of destroyed structures and at least three fatalities. Nearly 200,000 acres have burned.
As California’s fire season grows longer, hotter and bigger with each passing year, more and more out-of-state firefighters — and sometimes even out-of-country firefighters — head to the West Coast to help.
This year, California has received aid from Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Idaho. In past years, crews have traveled from as far as New York, Australia and American Samoa. Military members are often deployed to help, too.
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It’s not cheap to get outside help. Despite a budget of $354.5 million for prevention and $1.2 billion for protection, California will likely have to tap into its emergency firefighting fund, which for the 2019-20 fiscal year is slated at $691.5 million.
That’s a dramatic jump from last year, when the state Legislature appropriated $442.8 million for the fund. The state blew through that money in record time as fires blazed up and down California, ultimately spending more than $960 million.
Emergency fund appropriations have grown substantially over the last decade. In 2008-2009, for example, only $69 million was budgeted. That year the state spent nearly four times that.
The state is constantly evaluating firefighting needs, said H.D. Palmer, the spokesman for the state’s Finance Department. During big fires, one of the first people deployed to the front lines is a Cal Fire accountant. In nine of the last 12 years, the cost of fighting fires has exceeded the appropriated budget.
“Everything is bigger in California — people’s hopes and dreams, and wildfires,” said Brian Ferguson, California’s deputy director of crisis communication. “We’re lucky that our fire season happens later; peak fire season here means there’s often extra resources available from other places.”
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California requests help from other states through the Emergency Management Assistant Compact, a legal agreement between all states and territories to send aid where and when it’s needed during governor-declared emergencies or disasters.
“It’s basically a pact,” Ferguson explained. “When help is needed, help will come.”
Wildland fires provide experience
Traveling to California appeals to out-of-state firefighters for a multitude of reasons: The money is good, as crews are paid for the entire time they’re on the ground, totaling significant overtime.
For Oregon firefighters, who mostly respond to routine medical calls and small structural fires, it’s an opportunity to actually fight fires, which is “what we did all this training for,” Rojo said.
“In Oregon, it rains so much that we rarely see those big fires like Paradise or Kincade,” he said. “So getting that experience is really great for us. Obviously you never want something like this to happen to a community, but we all want to be the first ones to help.”
Battling big wildfires couldn’t be more different from his day job. Last week, Rojo’s crew spent the day with a hand crew, firefighters who walk around with chainsaws and hand tools and are tasked with digging out potential hazards to make a break in the landscape, which can help stop a fire from spreading.
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While a structural crew like Rojo’s has a thermal imaging camera to help them find warm spots, hand crews often can’t rely on technology. Instead, they use old-fashioned techniques. Rojo marveled at how hand crews stick the handle of their shovel in a stump to gauge temperatures. If the handle is warm when it emerges, they know to dig out the stump.
So far this year Oregon has given more aid than any other state, sending 75 engines and 266 firefighters to California. Washington, by comparison, has sent 35 engines.
Ian Yocum, a battalion chief in the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue department just outside of Portland, said he’s proud to work in a state that’s been first on the ground for the last three years, eager to help their neighbors to the south when fires burst out of control.
Being away from home for almost two weeks has its challenges.
Yocum missed his son’s 16th birthday Monday, and he forgot to turn in his ballot for local elections before he left.
The guilt can pile up.
“I’ve gotten several texts at 3 and 4 a.m. from my wife, when she’s up with the baby, saying, ‘Man, I wish you were home right now,’” Rojo said. “I know this has been hard on her — it’s been hard on all our families.”
In the time her dad’s been gone, Audrey Rojo has started eating solid foods, sitting up by herself and crawling backward.
“By the time I get home, she’ll probably be able to talk to me in full sentences: ‘Hey daddy, how are you?’” he joked.
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Yocum said in Tualatin, they’ve formed a peer support group that becomes the liaison between families and firefighters. The support group updates families if firefighters don’t have cell phone access, and pitch in around the house, helping with yard work or painting the house if asked.
There’s an emotional toll, too.
Yocum, 44, has been a firefighter for 23 years and has developed good compartmentalization skills over more than two decades of work. But arriving in a town where “the Starbucks is standing but the grocery store is burned to the ground,” can be jarring, he said.
On their drive south, the Tualatin crew rolled through towns that were completely dark.
Picking through rubble makes you think about what you’d have to leave behind if you were told to evacuate, Rojo said: Family photos, drawings by your kids, priceless heirlooms and mementos that can’t be replicated.
“Sometimes there are a lot of emotions flowing, but you’ve gotta bottle it up and deal with it after the call,” he said. “A couple nights ago we stayed in a motel with no power and no hot water and it’s tough, taking cold showers, being in the dark. But we have four walls and a roof over our heads, and we get to go home eventually. Here, there are families losing everything.”
Officials acknowledged they’re worried about the future. Climate change, coupled with urban sprawl, has put more communities at risk than ever before. California’s fire prevention and protection budgets have increased significantly over the last decade, but “Mother Nature doesn’t necessarily pay attention to an excel sheet,” said Palmer, from the Finance Department.
If California had called for help in August or September, when it’s typically still hot and dry in Oregon, “we would never have been able to send this many teams,” Yocum said. “We have to protect our own state. That just wouldn’t be an option.”
Palmer said there will always be money to deploy crews, put assets in the air and move equipment and personnel out to the front lines to fight fires and protect California residents. And when the state needs help, Rojo will be ready to volunteer again.
“It’s hard to leave,” Rojo said. “But what’s more important — going to your neighborhood barbecue, or helping save a neighborhood?”