An ominous red sky loomed over Oregon City resident Nate Bentley's car as he drove to work one morning in September 2020, the air clouded by smoke and ash from the infernos blazing in the near distance.
"It literally looked like hell," Bentley said. "I was just like, this is insane that anyone's going to work in this."
Bentley said the experience led him to question his career as a winemaker for the first time, leading to his current path of becoming a firefighter.
After leaving his first job as a music promoter in 2014, Bentley spent the next six years in the wine industry, working at Witness Tree Vineyard in Salem before becoming a cellar master at McMinnville's Harper Voit Wines in 2016, running his own wine brand, Old Salt Cellars, on the side.
But on that September 2020 morning in the midst of the most destructive wildfire season in Oregon history, Bentley felt compelled to help in any way he could.
"Thankfully I was working inside a facility, but I felt really terrible for the people picking grapes because they were outside in the smoke all day," Bentley recalled. "All the winemaking felt very frivolous."
Bentley had considered firefighting as career earlier in his life. In college he consulted with a friend who was a firefighter, but was informed that jobs were scarce at the time.
"Even though I always wanted to do firefighting, I put it out of my head for a long time after that," he said.
While Bentley was away harvesting last September, residents in his neighborhood were ordered to evacuate their homes, prompting his wife, who was pregnant at the time, to round up all of their belongings.
"It was just all the more reason to ditch the wine industry and be like 'oh, this is the real deal,'" Bentley said.
With renewed motivation, Bentley is now taking the first steps in his new journey toward fighting fires, beginning with EMT and paramedic certifications through Clackamas Community College.
"I'm running behind a lot of people who start a firefighting career, so right now I'm going back and starting EMT training," Bentley said, adding that he is taking prerequisite courses at Clackamas Community College before applying for Firefighter I and II certificates at Chemeketa Community College.
"I have a long way to go and a lot of education to do, so no guarantee yet, but I'm really motivated," Bentley said.
A former collegiate swimmer, Bentley said he is already a team-oriented worker, and even anticipates that some of the skills he developed as a winemaker may translate to the new career.
"In the wine industry, during harvest time in particular, you're working six to seven days a week, 12- to 14-hour days for at least two months. You're thinking three steps ahead all the time because you're doing 80 things at once," Bentley said. "I have a hunch that in firefighting, a good skill to have, in emergencies particularly, is being able to think ahead and being able to support your team, seeing where they might be messing up and you can pick up their slack, or where you're messing up, they can pick up your slack."
Bentley said another reason he is motivated to be of service to others is so he can set a good example for his newborn son.
"When I was in wine, it didn't feel like I had skills that were applicable to a world that might be harder in the future," Bentley said. "Not just fighting fires, but just helping people medically as well, because obviously a lot of firefighters have those EMT and paramedic skills.
"I want to be more available to the world in a helpful capacity, whether that's being able to fight fires or also just be medically capable of helping people."
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