Multnomah Task Force deployed to fight Oregon wildfires
Pat McAbery always knew he was going to be a firefighter. His mom and sister were EMTs and if there was no caregiver available, they'd throw him in the back seat when they went on calls staring when he was only 7 years old.
Now, 54, the Rhododendron resident has just returned from 12 days out fighting four of the disastrous wildfires that devastated communities around Oregon, and are still burning.
In his 28 years of firefighting, McAbery has been dispatched to many wildfires, including the tragic 2018 Camp Fire that wiped out the town of Paradise, Calif., killing 85 people. He also worked the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire in Southern Oregon near Brookings, which charred more than 190,000 acres.
McAbery, like so many other firefighters, loves his work.
"It's great to be able to make a positive difference in someone's horrible day. When we meet someone, it might be the worst day of their life, with a car accident or something. If their house is on fire, we can save it and their belongings. It's really a marvelous thing," he said.
When he heads out to wildfires, he's part of specialized county firefighting task forces sent to these conflagrations. To participate on the teams, firefighters must have extra training and are required to renew that training regularly. The makeup of the squads changes fire-to-fire, and this time, his squad was called Multnomah Task Force 30.
McAbery said fighting a wildfire and a structure fire are very different.
"The only thing they have in common is that something is burning," he said.
"If a house is on fire, we set up in front and do our thing. Then we leave. With a wild land fire, everything is moving," he explained.
The geography is also different and often challenging without adequate roads and other infrastructure.
"And the speed at which things happen is very different. With a wildfire, it's moving and so you're always thinking ahead. You do stuff over here today to get ready for what you expect to happen tomorrow. With a structure fire, you are there for an hour and then you're back home," he said.
More than a dozen wildfires have burned in Western Oregon for most of the month of September, scorching over a million acres and destroying homes and businesses, killing at least nine people.
Strong winds pushed the fires through small towns and residential neighborhoods. The conflagrations choked parts of the state in thick smoke for a week, sending people indoors to be safe from the air outside.
This time out, 12 Gresham firefighters were on the specialized wildland squad, Multnomah Task Force 30.
Task Force 30 was first sent to Colton, but before the group even started to get settled, they were dispatched to fires near Medford.
"We got the order. 'Get your rear ends down here right now.' We had the lights and sirens going until we got on the freeway. You usually don't use them going to a wildland fire," he said.
Arriving in Medford, Task Force 30 found other expected firefighters would not be coming, sent to other fires instead.
"We're definitely going to be busy," he thought to himself.
Right away, McAbery noticed the smell of the blanket of smoke. "That's houses burning. It smells different than forest burning."
The squad worked multiple fires near Medford joining other firefighters to save homes and businesses and keep the fires from spreading. They finally headed to the hard hit towns of Talent and Phoenix to give those firefighters a much-needed break.
Some of the burning mobile home parks tucked into the woods had only one narrow road in and out of the cluster of homes. Firefighters cleared paths so the trucks could get in.
"We made our own driveway," he said.
But firefighters sometimes have to make the emotional choice to let some homes burn to save others.
"They are difficult choices. But we have to look at the greater good. We hate doing that. We're fixers," McAbery said.
Calling himself an "old fart" among wild land firefighters, McAbery admits that fighting these unpredictable fires can still be unnerving.
"You are someplace you've never been with people you don't know," he said.
And, he adds, despite the amazing skill of his colleagues, fire-related disasters are "always lots of little things that happen."
He noted that often "the thing that should be scaring you, you don't know to be scared of."
He also credits the mostly contractor and agency fire fighters that create the fire breaks.
"We drive the shiny rigs, but the guys doing the hard work are the ones digging the lines," he said.
And, of the elite U.S. Forest Service Hotshot crews, "they are hand picked. They are all animals," he said admiringly.
McAbery, who works out of the main Gresham City Hall fire station, began his career working on an ambulance like his mom and sister.
In Rhododendron, he lives on the property where his mother grew up. He graduated from Sandy High School.
Married, the father of two missed taking his daughter off to college because of his deployment on Task Force 30. He also has a son, who is a senior at Sandy High School.
He said his wife, an accountant, is "pretty OK" with his profession. "She always knew I was going to do this," he said.
McAbery has a video production company and has done documentaries and other projects. He's also involved in the firefighter cadet program. The family likes the outdoor life and camps and enjoys their dirt bikes and all terrain vehicles.
McAbery's son has expressed interest in becoming a firefighter and is in the Gresham Fire Department cadet program, as well as the Hoodland Fire Explorer program. He'd be the third generation in the family business, participating in the "marvelous thing."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.