Firefighters fight fires and fatigue

MERLIN, Ore.– The beginning of September will mark more than Labor Day. In what has been a hazardous summer in terms of smoke and wildfires, this week will mark the third month of fire season for southern Oregon and northern California after the Klamathon Fire broke out in Hornbrook on July 5.

For firefighters, it’s been a long and taxing season. As they’re praised for their bravery and willingness to battle the raging elements, many however, push themselves to the limit to live up to those standards. It’s easy to forget that they’re only human and need breaks just like the rest of us.

According to a recent report from the Associated Press, a study by a professor at the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources found that through an online survey of 400 firefighters, many attributed injuries due to mental and physical fatigue.

As southern Oregon faces it’s newest fire, the Hugo Road Fire, more firefighters are adding another fire to this year’s belt notch. Working multiple fires over these two months has firefighting departments stressing the fact of how important it is for firefighters to take care of themselves while on the job.

“It’s been a very tiring fire season so one of the things we’re reminding everyone is fatigue,” said Melissa Cano, Oregon Department of Forestry. “Make sure you take breaks, check on each other. Have that situational awareness and really just care about one another.”

The professor at the University of Idaho, Randy Brooks, ended up doing a more in-depth study of how fatigue has affected firefighters and found that those he tested ended up showing loss of muscle mass and slower reaction times.

Thus, these reactions could lead to injuries and unwanted accidents. But for many fire crews, there are other elements that continue to push them.

“It’s the teamwork. It’s the camaraderie and they want to do right by their community and that’s what plays a challenge, if you will, in this fire fight,” said Cano. “Because firefighters want to do everything they can to protect all of these homes out here.”

One firefighter working the fire lines at Hugo Road is a local of Josephine County. Dirk Baertschiger has been out since early July, jumping from the Taylor Creek Fire to the Klondike Fire – always on the go.

“When it’s burning in your own backyard, there’s definitely kind of light a fire under your rear,” he said. “I’ve got family that lives around here.”

According to Baertschiger, every firefighter is given two days of R&R (rest and recuperation) every two weeks. However, many are still anxious to get back on the line.

“If you feel like all your guys are still kind of in it, they still got energy, they’re not missing home too much, you put in for an extension,” said Baertschiger. “Go another two weeks.”

It’s honorable and very much appreciated by residents everywhere. But as southern Oregon’s fire seasons get longer and push firefighters to the very brink taking time to replenish is always important.

According to one structure firefighter who came to fight the Hugo Road Fire, her department from the Pleasant Hill-Goshen Fire District in Lane County pushes their firefighters to care for themselves so they can then care for others to the best of their abilities.

“The department I come from, they always say, ‘A broken you is not going to fix anybody else,” said Tiffany Heilman. “So our mentality is to make sure we’re OK, so don’t over exert ourselves because what’s worse than somebody in danger is a firefighter in danger.”

NBC5 News Reporter Miles Furuichi graduated from Chapman University with degrees in English and Journalism. He received post graduate experience in Los Angeles in photojournalism and commercial photography. He also spent time in Dublin, Ireland working in print journalism and advertising.

Miles is a Rogue Valley native, raised in Ashland. He enjoys hiking, mountain biking and photography.

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