Crews from Banks, Cornelius, Forest Grove and Gaston fighting fires in Santa Rosa and San Diego

COURTESY PHOTO - Washington County sent two strike teams down to fight fires in California, including rigs and firefighters from Banks, Cornelius, Forest Grove and Gaston.Dozens of firefighters from around Washington County have headed south to battle the blazes in California's wine country, fires which have already claimed at least 41 lives and burned thousands of structures.

"This is the first time in my 20 years that we've gone to California," said Dave Nemeyer, a spokesperson for the Cornelius, Forest Grove and

Gaston fire departments. "There have been two times, this being the second, that we've had word about going to

California as a possibility, but this is the first time that we've ever actually went.

"This is just unprecedented for us."

Banks firefighters joined the first Washington County Strike Team, which got the request Tuesday night, Oct. 10, around 9 p.m. and left after midnight. Four other strike teams from Oregon also headed to California that night.

Banks sent four firefighters, Gaston sent two and Cornelius and Forest Grove sent three each, with each city also sending an engine designed to fight structure fires, not wildfires.

Such crisis calls from other areas send fire departments scrambling to balance staffing needs, working around upcoming time-off requests and other issues that might affect firefighter availability for local emergencies, Nemeyer said, such as a Lieutenant who any day now "is about to become a father for the first time."

Once selected, the western Washington County group met its counterparts at a Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue station along I-5, said Banks Fire Chief Rodney Linz.

TVF&R sent two engines, one from North Plains and the other from Newberg, along with 12 crew members, two vans and two battalion chief vehicles. Hillsboro Fire contributed one fire engine, four crew members and a strike-team leader.

They traveled down to California as a huge caravan, Nemeyer said, stopping together for coffee and bathroom breaks "and whatever else, just in case someone has a problem."

The first group took about 13 hours to get to Santa Rosa, he said.

"The first few days there, they were literally running from house to house burning out as much brush in the areas between the homes and the fire as they could," he said, "the idea being that if you remove fuel like that, the fire cannot get big enough in the area where it would catch the houses on fire."

Typically, when western Washington County's local departments are called to fight fires in other areas, they are in remote, rural terrain, Nemeyer said.

"In this case, the only thing I can compare this to would be like a fire burning outside a city roughly the same size as Hillsboro and Beaverton combined, and then burning so fast it destroyed entire sections like Rock Creek and Tanasbourne before anyone can do anything to stop it. The houses, the malls, the stores, the restaurants — all of the things in those areas are gone."

During the crews' rest periods, accommodations varied. "One of the crews got put up in a hotel and posted a picture of that on their personal Facebook page, which instantly drove the other guys crazy who were sleeping on the ground at a fairgrounds," Nemeyer said.

The four local stations also joined a second Washington County Strike Team that went down to California last Friday night, Oct. 13, this time with brush rigs designed to fight wildland fires, not protect structures.

Banks sent a brush rig with three firefighters and Gaston sent a brush rig with a captain from Forest Grove, a rig operator from Gaston and a firefighter from Cornelius.

They traveled to Chino in Orange County in about 18 hours, Nemeyer said.

As of 5 p.m. Sunday night, Linz said, his brush rig and crew were on their way to fight fires in the San Diego area.

Nemeyer posted a video on the Forest Grove Fire & Rescue Facebook page Sunday from an NBC news station, showing the Santa Rosa fire.

"It is tremendously powerful," he said. "This was no typical wildfire. Instead, it moved into the city and burned everything it came in contact with. Not just homes were lost, but businesses large and small, entire neighborhoods and districts of the city of Santa Rosa gone as if a rain of bombs fell from the sky. This is destruction and devastation that hasn't been seen in the United States in decades, perhaps even in modern times."

John William Howard contributed to this story.

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