Clackamas Fire: 'We need to think more strategically'
Steve McAdoo wishes there was a better word to describe the wildfires that have ravaged Clackamas County these past two weeks than "unprecedented."
The word has been so overused — in media interviews, briefings and around the firehouse — that it has become a running joke among his colleagues throughout Clackamas Fire District No. 1.
"I wish I had a thesaurus to come up with some other words," McAdoo joked.
Despite the word quickly becoming a trope that is easily thrown around, "unprecedented" is certainly an accurate representation of how wildfire has affected both the landscape and the communities they've threatened to destroy.
McAdoo, 56, remembers sitting in front of the screen inside of Clackamas Fire Station 10 that logs fire calls on the evening of Monday, Sept. 7, the night when several fires sparked throughout the county.
As calls continued to come in and trucks began mobilizing from 20 other fire stations across the districts, McAdoo and his colleagues at Station 10 thought they might just catch a break.
"We were sitting there going, 'We might just get through this without being called,'" he said. "That all changed within about five minutes of us saying that, and we didn't end up getting back to the station until two-and-a-half days later."
According to McAdoo — a resident of Oregon City and 17-year apparatus operator with Clackamas Fire — he and his crew worked 52 hours straight with no sleep, but other crews from Clackamas Fire reported being out on calls for as long as 78 to 100 hours.
Under normal circumstances, he said, crews aren't allowed to work more than 72 hours straight, and that's typically with downtime and rest between calls.
What transpired the past two weeks has been anything but normal circumstances.
"Every spring going into summer we joke about how this is going to be the worst wildfire season we've ever had," McAdoo said. "We know what's out there, so we're always worried that it's going to take one bad year for things to really blow up."
One of the hardest parts of the job, McAdoo said, was triaging how they would anchor and fight the fires as they moved toward populated areas. He and his crew were tasked with scouting neighborhoods to assess what homes could be defended and what homes were incapable of being saved as fire moved quickly toward them.
Sadly, many of the homes in rural and suburban areas of the county are so enclosed by trees and brush that if the fire made it close to them, there was nothing fire crews could do to save them, he said.
For McAdoo, the experience solidified in his mind that one of the most important messages coming out of his agency and many others across Oregon is that defensible space — cleared area between your home and the forest — is critical to the protection of homes and structures in the wildland-urban interface. It's also one of the few things home and property owners can do for themselves to defend against deadly and destructive fires that are seemingly becoming worse each year.
"The one thing we can preach to people is defensible space," he said. "We need to take care of ourselves by making sure our yards, our neighborhoods, whatever, [are] kept clear and clean of debris and trees are taken care of. We need to think more strategically."
He hopes that images of the destruction that took place in the communities of Detroit, Mill City and Lyons will spur people throughout the state into action to help fire agencies in the protection of their homes and towns.
Despite all of the trauma and exhaustion that came with the past two weeks, McAdoo said that throughout this process, he and his colleagues received the largest outpouring of support they've ever received.
As Clackamas Fire and other firefighters from around the state and country were working to protect local communities from harm, pallets of food, water, Gatorade and toiletry items such as Chapstick, eye drops, wet wipes, socks, underwear and more poured into their fire stations from the public.
"It was unreal, I've never seen anything like it before," McAdoo said. "The support we got from people, every time we passed a car they were waving, flashing their lights and honking. We get a lot of that in our daily life, but it was every car, every person. Anytime we were outside our rig people were coming over, asking if they could buy us a cup of coffee. I've never been part of something like that, and it's what keeps you going, because those were rough days."
According to McAdoo, the brotherhood of firefighters was sorely tested these past two weeks in the fact that many of his colleagues were forced to lean on each other more than usual in order to get through. Long hours, a lack of sleep and not getting to see your family for days on end can really get you down, but many of those within Clackamas Fire are actually trained as members of the agency's peer support program, including McAdoo himself.
"There's at least one guy on every engine that's a peer support guy, so that helps just to be able to talk to each other and say, "Hey, this is normal. How are you doing?,'" he said. "Nowadays, it's OK in the fire service, which it wasn't before, to say 'I'm struggling, this is hard on me.' Whether it's a call that you went on to where we just did CPR on a 2-year-old. There are guys who would say, 'That was really hard for me because I have a 2-year-old at home,' or 'You know those people that we helped get out of their house, and then it burned to the ground, they reminded me of my grandpa and grandma.' Those are the things that stick in guys' heads, and that's where those mental struggles come from."
McAdoo is a firm believer that disasters and the struggle that comes with them brings out the best in both people and the communities they happen within. He knows that Clackamas County as a whole will grow from this experience and become even stronger for it.
He also believes Clackamas Fire will become stronger through this experience and more prepared for the challenges that lie ahead as Oregon faces hotter, drier summers.
"I was just telling my wife this morning that we're gonna kick this thing in the butt. We're gonna be even better next year if this same event happens," McAdoo said. "We're going to be so much better prepared, and we're going to know how to do things so much better because we learned so many lessons. We're going to be stronger mentally [and] we're going to be better tactically and strategically."
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