The size, speed, and number of wildfires ravaging the western U.S. this season has been unprecedented. A third of Oregon’s 15 largest wildfires since 1900 have taken place this year. In California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, thick smoke has hung in the air for weeks as fires fueled by climate change burned millions of acres and resulted in at least 30 deaths.
And, despite the fact that we’re well into fall, the fire season still isn’t over. In Oregon, wildfires usually slow down around Labor Day, but the Holiday Farm Fire, for instance, burned more than 173,000 acres in September and October. Firefighter Doug Thackery, 56, a forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry in southwest Oregon, was among the first to respond. Fast Company spoke with him about his experience, which has been edited for clarity and space.
In my day job, I’m a stewardship forester. I ensure that loggers comply with the Oregon Department of Forestry’s rules and regulations. But everybody within ODF has some role in firefighting, whether it’s seasonal work or doing frontline firefighting like I do. When a fire breaks out, I drop what I’m doing and go there.
Up until Labor Day weekend was a really slow summer for me. That weekend, I ended up being a task force leader on the Grizzly Creek Fire [first reported near Ashland, Oregon]. We’d been working really hard on that one, because we knew a high wind event had been forecasted. When I went to bed Monday night, I fully expected to be going back to the Grizzly Creek Fire on Tuesday.
Instead, I got a call at 3 a.m. from district protection supervisors saying I was needed up in Springfield, Oregon, as soon as possible. The Holiday Farm Fire had started, and they needed resources. I was sent up there as a task force leader. At that point, I didn’t know anything about the fire.
It was 6:30 a.m. when I showed up for a briefing at a local middle school. The parking lot was just full of evacuees—RVs, horse trailers, people wandering around. I found out I wasn’t expected until later in the day, so I drove to district headquarters and downloaded some maps. I learned the fire was probably 40,000 acres and had tremendous growth.
The briefing took place at 11 a.m. Only four ODF division supervisors, four ODF task force leaders, a 20-person hand crew, and two Type 6 engines (basically four-wheel-drive pickup trucks carrying 200 gallons of water) were available. We had this 40,000-acre fire bearing down on us and maybe enough resources to work on a one-acre fire.
It looked like a solar eclipse on a cloudy day. That’s the first time I’ve ever been scared [while working] on a fire.
We had a meeting in the middle of the highway and decided that one group would go into Vida, and my division supervisor and I would take the 20-person hand crew and start trying to make houses defendable against fire. We started triaging, splitting the crew into four squads and labeling houses based on how difficult they would be to defend. If a five-person squad could make the house defendable in 15 minutes or less, I hung a yellow ribbon on the address sign. If it would take more than 15 minutes, it got a single pink ribbon. If I didn’t feel we could do anything to defend the house, it got a pink X. Trees within 30 feet of the home and tall shrubbery close to the house make it harder to defend.
People had to evacuate so fast that they didn’t have time to move their livestock. I kept a tally of pastures that had horses or cows in them, and as I moved through the neighborhood, I’d circle back to see how close the fire was getting to those pastures. The first two horses I herded out, being horses, turned and ran right back to the barn burning near their pasture. I thought, well, I’ve done what I can, so I went back to triaging houses.
There’s also an historic fish hatchery, for salmon and steelhead trout, in the area dating back to 1907. It has a big, old-style farmhouse and large, wooden outbuildings. I gathered up a couple of the smaller squads, and we went through there trying to make it as defendable as possible, moving multiple gas barbecues and 50-pound bags of wood pellets away from the buildings. Part of the crew trimmed shrubbery and raked pine needles so there would be less fire fuel near the buildings as well.
At that point, we could see the fire on the ridge above us. It was probably a quarter-mile away. I’d been given orders that we had to be on the road by 10 p.m., no excuses. After talking with my division supervisor about how we really needed a win after a day watching houses burn down, we gathered the crew together at 9 p.m. and embarked on an all-out effort to protect the fish hatchery. Guys were using chainsaws like Weed Eaters and dumping brush in the nearby swamp. When it was time to leave, we didn’t know if our efforts would pay off. [Editor’s note: They did—the hatchery remains intact.]
That night at the fire camp, after debriefing, I pitched my tent around midnight and didn’t even bother to set up my cot. I was so tired.
I spent the next day doing recon to determine fire behavior and see if there were opportunities to get equipment in and start cutting fireline. We saw 20-foot flames and very aggressive fire behavior. My division supervisor had started getting more resources—a couple big dozers, and the crew was putting fireline behind the houses we had triaged the day before.
The biggest difference I see between this fire season and previous ones is the amount of resources available.
The biggest difference I see between this fire season and previous ones is the amount of resources available. After Labor Day, things usually quiet down, but this year we ended up having five or six gigantic fires all starting within about two or three hours of each other. That’s so much need at the same time. I’m used to showing up at a fire and having a couple dozers at my disposal, along with larger crews and big planes dropping retardant. That first morning on the Holiday Farm Fire, we had 32 people, and that was already the biggest fire I’d ever been on in my life. More than 400 residences burned on the Holiday Farm Fire, and in Obenchain, probably around 50 homes burned.
It’s weird to transition from living off adrenaline to going back to my day job. For a couple days I probably wasn’t very effective. My sleep schedule is off—I’m still getting up at 3:30 in the morning.
Two weekends ago, I went to central Oregon to see my parents. On the way back, I drove through the middle of the Holiday Farm Fire. They had just let residents back into the area. Fifty yards off the road, you’d see people walking around, stoop-shouldered. Sometimes, there’d be a chimney to indicate there’d been a home there. It was pretty disturbing, seeing the amount of destruction. Then I’d keep driving, and all of a sudden there’d be a house standing where those on either side had burned to the ground. That’s the random nature of fire.