Woodburn fire crew returns from California
Reflecting on what they witnessed after working in a disastrous setting is no small task for first responders.
Knowing that they made a difference to someone helps the process.
That connection unfolded this month with a group of Woodburn firefighters who were among a contingent from Marion County dispatched to Paradise, Calif., to assist thousands of first responders battling the "Camp Fire," described by Oregon State Fire Marshal's Office (OSFM) as "the nation's deadliest wildfire in a century."
By Thanksgiving weekend the Camp Fire's reported death toll reached into the mid 80s, while roughly 600 people remained unaccounted for or missing. Firefighters, law enforcement officers, FEMA and Red Cross personnel were among those deployed to battle the wildfire and assess the area's damages.
Less than two weeks earlier at its peak, the situation commanded roughly 5,500 firefighters and law enforcement partners to the area, including help from Oregon. Woodburn Fire District's engine boss Jon Koenig and his crew, driver Scott Mateson and firefighters Joe Jacobucci and Brandon Madura, were among the mix, deployed on Nov. 9 through an Emergency Management Assistance Compact coordinated through OSFM. They were among more than 20 firefighters from six total districts in Marion County responded, including Marion County Fire District No. 1, Mount Angel Fire District, Silverton Fire District, Jefferson Fire District and Salem Fire Department.
The experience had a profound impact.
"I've been in the fire protection service for 26 years, and I have never experienced, in all those years, the level of destruction we saw (in Paradise)," Koenig said. "It's a town of 27,000 people, and maybe 5 percent of it remained.
"It was just absolute destruction."
Paradise and Woodburn are about the same size; that fact didn't escape Koenig.
"It was a very somber and very sober atmosphere," said Koenig, a fourth generation Woodburn resident. "I bring it home to Woodburn. We're about the same size. What would happen tomorrow if some catastrophic event occurred, and our town wasn't there anymore?
"My entire crew had that same empathy. If there is anything we can do to make it better, we are going to do it."
Koenig described tactics of firefighters moving with the fire, trying to corral or contain it, while law enforcement personnel focused on search and recovery of bodies.
"As time goes on it becomes a more integrated effort, and teams make sure we have the tools to do our work," Koenig said shortly after returning home. "FEMA and Red Cross are involved helping the citizens who have been displaced. It's a machine that, once it's up and going, it gets better control of this disaster.
"The fire probably won't be out for another month, but I wouldn't be back here at home if the situation wasn't better — coming under control enough so they felt comfortable letting us come home."
On Nov. 21 OSFM spokesperson Kristin Schafer announced in a press release that "the strike teams that have been assisting with battling the Camp Fire for the past 12 days have demobilized and are all back at their home stations as of yesterday, just in time to spend Thanksgiving with their loved ones."
Kim Zagaris, the State Fire and Rescue Chief at California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, applauded their efforts.
"I wanted to pass along our deepest thanks to both Director (Andrew) Phelps and State Forester (Doug) Decker as well as the staffs at the Oregon State Fire Marshal, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and especially the Oregon Fire Service who again were able to respond to California's request for mutual aid," Zagaris said. "Your ability to respond so quickly with 85 Oregon fire engines and the 290 firefighters who staff them is most impressive. Nothing can make us more proud than to see the nation's fire service respond to its neighbor's assistance for mutual aid so quickly."
Koenig reflected on what his crew had witnessed. Between the disaster-area scenario and the empathy felt for those who lost everything, he acknowledged a self-critical feeling: ruminating over what they did, wondering if they did enough and what they could do better. Did they make a difference?
He received an answer via social media.
In a Nov. 12 Facebook post, Rob Martell shared thoughts of his family's Paradise ordeal and specifically expressed gratitude for the Woodburn crew. Martell returned to his father-in-law's Paradise home, along with his brother-in-law, to assess damages.
Like the first responders, they found indescribable destruction.
"You cannot imagine the devastation unless you are there," Martell said. "It changes a man; at least it did for me."
Martell said his father-in-law, Stephen Rowe, and his wife, Metha Rowe, lost everything, "but for the grace of God they made it out."
Martell's wife asked him to look for war medals Stephen Rowe received on tours in Vietnam and Desert Storm. He described the scenario on Facebook:
"A group of firefighters from Woodburn, Oregon, checking home sites for latent fires, came upon our search and asked if they could assist in any way. I told them that I believed under this fallen exterior wall was where my wife's father had hung a shadow box with his medals and awards, which I could not get to on my own.
"Within 15 minutes they had demolished and peeled the wall back and began gently sifting through the rubble. They recovered 15 of 18 medals within 10 minutes. I don't want these men's actions to go unnoticed for they helped in the healing process for our family."
A week later Martell reiterated to the Woodburn Independent: "Jon, Scott, Joe and Brandon need to be recognized for their kindness and sacrifice away from their families."
Koenig said he and his crew saw the Facebook post, and they were moved.
"Absolutely," Koenig said. "I have been through several large emergencies in my career. You don't forget those things. You take the good and bad and learn how to (cope). If you are not an empathetic person, you become one quickly. You learn how fragile things are and how quickly they can be taken away.
"Sheer mass destruction of environment stays with you a very long time," he added. "You get self critical about how helpful am I being? When I read the post from Rob, after seeing the large impact the fire had on his family...we can't un-see the things we saw, but we do have peace in knowing we made some difference for this family."