Coos County task force at Garner Complex fire

Members of the Coos County task force at the Garner Complex fire.

COOS COUNTY — For over a week, a team of 12 firefighters from Coos County have been lending a hand to fire crews battling the Garner Complex fire near Grants Pass, which has burned over 30,000 acres.

Members of the Coos County Fire Task Force have been demobilized from the Garner Complex fire and were headed home Monday evening.

“We actually just demobilized a few minutes ago. Most of the task force has been here since last Saturday,” Coos County Fire Task Force Leader and Charleston Fire Chief Mick Sneddon said.

Sneddon joined the crew on Sunday, taking over for another firefighter who had been leading the task force on the ground the week prior.

Of the 12 firefighters, three are from Bandon Rural Fire Protection District, three are from Charleston RFPD, four are from Sumner RFPD, and two are from the Lakeside RFPD. The Gold Beach Fire Department also participated. All are volunteer firefighters. Sneddon said each participating fire agency brought a brush truck with them to provide assistance with equipment.

The Coos County Fire Task Force focused on protecting structures from burning during the week they were in Grants Pass.

“They worked night operations the whole time. They did a lot of work prepping houses and worked a lot of spot fires,” Sneddon said.

"It was an amazing experience, I learned a lot and I will never forget it," said Meghan Hill, who was among the group of firefighters. "We left the July Jubilee parade, had 30 minutes to pack and on the road to work that night."

Hill assisted the task force leader by taking notes, keeping track of where they were, checking in with them, notifying people of evacuations where homes were occupied, and networking and making connections with other firefighters from fire departments throughout the state.

According to Coos County Fire Chief Lanny Boston, putting a task force like this together is unusual for Coos County. He said the county hasn't been able to send any teams for several years because they didn't have enough people trained and certified in wildland firefighting, but now they do.

"The training matrix to fight wildland fires is real hard," said Boston, who is also Bandon's fire chief. "You have to have an engine boss on each apparatus and a strike leader for each team, and a wildland red card (Incident Qualification Card) filled out. You can take the schooling, but that doesn't do any good until you've done the training. Our volunteers have built their way back up, so we were able to send them this year."

Sneddon said another issue the county has had in putting together task forces like this is a lack of volunteers.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to do it. It’s difficult, the volunteer firefighters in Coos County are way down. It’s getting more and more difficult to find volunteers,” Sneddon said.

Each week, Boston updates Coos County's availability for sending firefighters and equipment. The departments coordinating the firefighting efforts, such as the Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service, try to work within a "closest agency concept" and call on those resources that are closest to the fire.

Boston said volunteer firefighters are usually allowed paid or unpaid leave from their jobs for each day they are asked to work on a fire, though some agencies make their workers take vacation time.

The task force may be heading back out to continue fighting the Garner Complex fire or a different fire. First each agency must ensure they have enough personnel at home to be available in case of a fire in their area.

Boston said the North Bend and Coos Bay fire departments are not participating in the wildland firefighting program.  

"It's actually a real money maker for the fire department," Boston said. "The state reimburses for equipment and the firefighter gets a fair rate. We're all there to help our neighbors, but it's nice to get paid."

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Nicholas A. Johnson can be reached at 541-266-6049, or by email at nicholas.johnson@theworldlink.com.