Ore. Team Specializes in Rescuing Injured Firefighters in Wildfires
Oct. 18—When Zachary Sullivan and two other Greeley firefighters arrived in September, the town's 22,000 residents found themselves in the heart of an inferno.
The town, situated near the Umpqua Complex in central Oregon, was on the edges of what became a 38,000-acre fire that, at that time, had been deemed the second-most severe in a region going up in smoke. All told, 1,200 firefighters battled the blaze.
Sullivan and Greeley's other two firefighters were ready to rescue any of them if they got hurt. They're known as the "rapid extrication team," and their job is to rescue injured firefighters.
Having crews specifically focused on pulling firefighters out of dangerous situations might sound like a pretty basic idea, but such teams are still fairly uncommon. The Greeley Fire Department's team is one of only three in the country that specializes in this type of rescue.
"You have an injured person... that's a man-power-intensive operation, but you (also) have a 38,000-acre fire burning around you,"
Why it's so uncommon among wildland firefighting crews is a bit of a mystery, Sullivan said. When fighting structure fires, urban fire departments always have crews set aside to rescue team members who get hurt. Yet, he admits that although he fought wildfire for 13 years, the idea never occurred to him, either.
It didn't occur to anyone, in fact, until a wildland firefighter died recently, Sullivan said. The man ripped open his leg with a chainsaw, and the impromptu rescue effort took nine hours. He died before his crew members could get him to safety.
A Greeley firefighter helping with a wildfire out of state saw a team in action, Sullivan said, and when he returned to Greeley, approached Sullivan about setting one up here.
"I'm blessed with some very creative and talented people," said Greeley Fire Chief Dale Lyman. "They said they could do it for minimal cost and effort, but it was something they wanted to take on, so we gave them the green light."
Greeley's team was then put into a national database that allowed fire districts in other states to request its help. Within 24 hours, Sullivan said, nine districts in the scorched northwest had requested their presence. One of them was the team fighting the blaze near Roseburg.
So they left for Oregon on what would become a 27-day trip, with three weeks spent on the ground in the Umpqua Complex.
Helping downed firefighters can be dangerous because team members have to rescue a person while still dealing with all the dangers of a forest fire.
"You have an injured person ... that's a man-power-intensive operation, but you (also) have a 38,000-acre fire burning around you," said Sullivan.
The team consists of a paramedic, and also a crew member whose job is to use ropes to get rescuers and downed firefighters out of rough terrain. They use three ropes—each 300 feet long—a stretcher and multiple harnesses. That's to say nothing of all the usual gear wildland firefighters hike into a fire, such as chainsaws, hand tools, and food and water for multiple days.
Fortunately, during the 21 days the Greeley team spent in Oregon, it did not have to rescue anyone. It did, however, assist in other ways. One of the other jobs, Sullivan remembers, was scouting suitable areas for helicopters to land within the fire. The firefighters directed other heavy machinery too, he said, such as bulldozers. They worked and camped with fire crews from across the west.
"We were the go-to group when something needed doing," he said. "We were sent to do one job and we did ten."