Over the course of the 30-hour drive from Fergus Falls to Cave Junction, Ore., Eden Prairie firefighter Ward Parker kept focus, reading or talking on the phone to learn as much as he could about fighting wildfires as he prepped to lead a two-week mission into a raging, mountain hot zone.
If he’d wanted to gaze out the window, Parker said there wasn’t much to be seen because smoke clouded the view from western North Dakota, through Montana, Idaho and Washington state.
“We couldn’t see any mountains; it was like you’re driving at dusk,” Parker said, adding later, “With how smoky it was, it just amped up the anticipation of what we were doing.”
He focused on a self-directed crash course on fighting mountain wildfires, prepping himself as one of two leaders in a 29-man crew of Minnesota responders accustomed to flat land and structure fires. He led 15 of the men; Bemidji Fire Chief Dave Hoefer helmed a similarly sized crew.
Parker spoke Wednesday about the experience at a news conference with several of the firefighters from across the state who spent two weeks in September fighting the Slater Fire on Oregon’s southern border with California.
The Slater Fire has seared 155,000 acres and is only two-thirds contained. The amount of land destroyed is equivalent to a third of Hennepin County, State Fire Marshal Jim Smith said.
Oregon had requested help from across the country through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and Gov. Tim Walz approved two teams from Minnesota, which included equipment and personnel from Bemidji, Brainerd, Crosslake, Eden Prairie, Fisher, Motley and the Spring Lake Park/Blaine/Mounds View departments.
The Minnesota group met up Sept. 15 in Fergus Falls to caravan across the country with nine vehicles, including four large engines and a giant tender that can carry 2,000 gallons of water. The men pitched their tents at a Cave Junction fire camp for some 1,200 firefighters from across the country.
There was a learning curve, and the days were grueling.
“When we come in, we’re used to seeing a building fire and saying, ‘Let’s put that out quickly,’ ” Brainerd Deputy Fire Chief Dave Cox said.
But sprawling wildfires don’t work that way. Cox described some of the work as “mopping up,” spending the day putting out a fire on a massive tree stump. “The trees are really big and the stumps will burn for quite a while,” Cox said.
The men were up at 5 a.m., en route to their assignments by 7 a.m., back to the camp at 7 p.m. for dinner, then exhausted and seeking sleep by 8 p.m., with minds racing. “It was just so new,” Parker said. “You’re just processing it, trying to think about what happened during the day.”
Cell service at the camp was mostly nonexistent so there wasn’t much contact with family back in Minnesota.
The men were pushed to eat 6,000 calories a day, yet nearly all lost weight. “They feed you a lot. Halfway through, I was sick of eating,” said Dan Retka, a Spring Lake Park/Blaine/Mounds View firefighter.
Most days the firefighters would be sent out on mountains where pathways had been freshly bulldozed. They described hanging onto trees for support during the climbs. The Minnesota crew was unaccustomed to working at altitude, which most agreed was more challenging than the smoky air.
They carried heavy loads of up to 60 pounds that included their lunch and snacks, eight bottles of drinking water, their bladders with up to 8 gallons of water to spray, an ax and a shovel and all their protective gear, including hot packs, designed to provide protective shelter in a worst-case scenario.
Some men had to use PTO days to make the trip. The men were paid a per diem by Oregon for the work. The state also will reimburse Minnesota for the equipment used.
Yet when asked if they’d do it again, the answer was a quick yes.
“It’s kind of what we do; if somebody needs help, we go,” Nick Dille, a firefighter from Motley, said.
Even though the fire still burns, the men described a sense of accomplishment as evidenced by the cleared skies on the drive home and everyone’s safe return. “My No. 1 goal was to bring my task force of 15 back,” Parker said.