For many who have watched the Eagle Creek Fire spread, the urge to help is strong. But officials remind enthusiastic volunteers that firefighting is best left to the experts.
There are ways to become a firefighter. People interested in firefighting as a career often earn a fire science degree at a local college or university. Fire departments also offer volunteer training programs open to everyone. Wildland firefighters often work seasonally, but they still get trained. Without training, officials say, the best way to help is to stay away.
“We support people helping out in any way they can, as long as they’re doing it in the right way,” Shandra Terry, a spokesperson for the United States Forest Service said. “To learn how to become a wildland firefighter, visit our website and find out how to get involved.”
The Eagle Creek Fire has swept through more than 34,000 acres in the Columbia Gorge, much of it rushing over ridges, toward towns and historic places, in just the first two days. It prompted officials to issue evacuation orders to nearly 2,000 residents. Firefighting crews from across the country have converged to battle the blaze.
Lieutenant Damon Simmons, a spokesperson for the Oregon State Fire Marshal, said firefighters prove themselves through rigorous training that prepares them to fight these fires. Unless you’re a professional or trained volunteer, he said, stay away from the evacuation zone.
“We definitely want people to get involved, but get training first,” Simmons said. “Learn how to do it so you can be empowered to help out in this type of situation.”
Structural firefighters usually work for local departments, and training lasts upwards of a year. Often people earn a college degree on the subject. Wildland firefighters usually take seasonal jobs. They have to train, and it starts with a 3-mile hike, loaded down with a 45-pound pack, all completed in less than 45 minutes.
Unlike structural fires, Simmons said, wildfires can take weeks or even months to get under control. Weather and rough terrain can make their job more difficult. Together, those factors make wildfires extremely difficult to contain.
“Terrain, especially in this fire, is very treacherous,” Simmons said. “Some areas are so remote and inaccessible that we can’t get firefighters in there and we’re using aircraft to get those areas under control.”
Some crew members on the Eagle Creek blaze have been fighting wildfires for more than 40 years, he said. It’s that experience, he said, that equips them to respond.