Smoke in the air over Paisley
The scene in Paisley, a small community on the edge of the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Rich Saalsaa)

Philomath Fire & Rescue’s Rich Saalsaa describes his deployment to nation’s largest wildfire

In the middle of a presentation to a group of folks in a small town on the edge of the largest wildfire in the country, Philomath Fire & Rescue Capt. Rich Saalsaa had to pause the conversation “when all of a sudden, our phones blew up with an evacuation notice.”

Saalsaa said he led by example and immediately headed for his vehicle and high-tailed it out of town.

“I had to go back (toward his home base) basically through the evacuation point where the sheriff’s office was sort of setting things up,” Saalsaa said Friday afternoon, a day after returning from his deployment on the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon. “But the glow of the fire was right there as we were going back … You press a little harder on the gas pedal getting through.”

Just another day on the Bootleg, which historically is the state’s largest-ever single fire. (A few others have been larger, but those involved more than one fire that merged).

Sleep-deprived and only having the opportunity to shower only every second or third day, Saalsaa worked the Bootleg from July 9-21. It represented his first-ever deployment to a major wildland fire as a public information officer.

Philomath Fire & Rescue Capt. Rich Saalsaa, right, answers questions about the Bootleg Fire during a radio interview. (Photo courtesy of Rich Saalsaa)

Philomath Fire & Rescue had nine personnel on fires around the state:

• Capt. Andy Loudon and firefighter Brent Goold along with Saalsaa were deployed to the Bootleg Fire.

• Deputy Chief Chancy Ferguson (strike team leader), Lt. Trent Tegen (engine boss), Robbie Harvey (firefighter), Aine Smith (pumper operator), Levi Schell (pumper operator) and Paula Anderson (engine boss) initially went to the Jack Fire east of Roseburg and were all then called over to the Grandview Fire northwest of Redmond. Tegen, Harvey and Smith were deployed with an engine and Schell and Anderson with a water tender.

All nine personnel returned safely last week after two-week stints. But they keep their bags packed in case they are needed again.

Upon arrival on July 9 to the Bootleg, Saalsaa said he was accountable for answering the fire information line, which involves fielding calls from the public and media outlets. At the time, two Type 2 incident management teams were working the fire.

Community members gather for a fire information meeting in Sprague River. (Photo courtesy of Rich Saalsaa)

Saalsaa serves on the Office of the State Fire Marshal’s Type 2 Incident Management “Green Team.”

“When I got there, it was 16,000 acres and when I left, it was 400,000 — that’s how big it got,” Saalsaa said Friday. “We were there running the show until the 12th when the fire was so big that they brought in a Pacific Northwest federal Type 1 team and ODF’s (Oregon Department of Forestry) Type 1 team. That’s when we split the whole fire into two zones.”

After the incident management teams were split up into zones, Saalsaa transitioned into what is known as “trapline work.”

A weather balloon is deployed from the incident command post in Lakeview. (Photo courtesy of Rich Saalsaa)

“We go out on these big information boards and we staple up maps and updates and then we have community meetings with people,” Saalsaa explained. “It’s a gathering event every time we come there … we kinda go to the same place every day at the same time. We have a nice group of people, sometimes upwards of 50, local community folks.”

Saalsaa said that in the beginning, the meetings were about 40 miles away from the fire. But then he added, “When a fire can advance as much as 5 miles in a day, that’s obviously when concern is there. They were so grateful just to get the information.”

Saalsaa spent a considerable amount of time on the road driving to different communities to provide information and updates.

“I met all the mayors and the City Council people and the sheriffs — the who’s who of all of these little towns around there,” he said. “Sometimes the fire chief was the owner of the gas station and some of them got deployed on the fire as well.”

In tiny Paisley — a Lake County community with fewer than 500 residents — Saalsaa even went on the air with his voice broadcast through a low-power radio transmitter.

“I’ve seen a lot of forest fires, but certainly not at this scale,” Saalsaa said while pausing to cough, an after-effect of the smoke-filled conditions where he had been working.

“We’d go through a town and it’s like midnight at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” he added. “All of the street lights are on and it’s orange, not black, but a very dark orange. You’d have to be extra careful because you can’t see very well with the smoke down on the ground.”

A pyrocumulus cloud as it appeared over the fire area from a vantage point just north of Lakeview. (Photo courtesy of Rich Saalsaa)

Dramatic wind events known as pyrocumulus clouds provided very unpredictable situations for firefighters.

“The plumes that came up, the pyrocumulus cloud formations that make their own weather as that hot air rises, well that’s all burning embers, that’s stuff up in those clouds,” Saalsaa said. “And they had two of them collapse — one basically one day after another.”

Saalsaa said the clouds fall down and “it’s 60- and 80-mph winds blowing embers everywhere and the fire will go out 4 miles in nothing flat. It’s everybody abandon ship, all the firefighters off the line, off to their safety zones, it’s a big deal.”

The fire season started earlier than ever this summer and only in late July, the battles could continue for quite some time.

“Last year, all heck broke loose around Labor Day weekend and this one now is at the beginning of July and that doesn’t bode well,” Saalsaa said. “We had all three state (incident management) teams out at the same time because we had the Bootleg Fire, which caught most of the attention, the Grandview Fire and the Jack Fire, and several others that are burning at the same time.”

As of Monday, the Bootleg Fire had grown to 409,611 acres and was considered 53% contained. Personnel on the blaze number 2,257. Firefighters are successfully patrolling and holding the containment line around the southern area of the fire with intense activity continuing on the northern edges.

Over the course of the fire, more than 90 fire departments from across the country have responded to serve the impacted communities. On Monday, an additional 120 Oregon National Guardsmen were scheduled to arrive —six crews of 20 — to join the firefighting force.

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