Cameron’s Corner: Fire Stories – The Spring Creek Fire

It was during the mid-summer of 2006 that I got my first taste of real forest fire. July 26 was an otherwise clear, warm and sunny day in Tillamook County and it was my first season on an ODF wildfire engine.
Assigned to the north district of Tillamook County, myself and my Forest Officer, Doug Graham of Garibaldi fame, were finishing up a day of patrol in the Nehalem River area of the Tillamook State Forest. We were taking a moment to inspect the campfire rings at Nehalem Falls Campground when the first call came over the radio.
“Rockaway Fire, reports of thick smoke coming from behind the Lake Lytle area in Rockaway Beach, all ODF resources in the area please respond, notifying Station 91.”
Graham’s eyes widened, I’d learned from the seasoned veteran of both fire and war, the kinds of reactions certain situations might elicit out of my Forest Officer. An appearance of shock and awe struck his face as he grabbed the mic to respond.
“Station 800 this is 91-13, we’re heading that way,” said Graham simply as I realized what was happening. Quickly getting back into the engine we started heading out of the upper Nehalem area, onto Foss Road and eventually chose to head down the Miami-Foley as it was a toss up as to what would be faster from where we were.
My heart racing as we kept listening to the radio for an official size-up of the incident from dispatch. Within minutes the Rockaway Beach rural fire protection units were on scene and providing the radio with some crucial information for us as we sped that direction in our 300 gallon, Type-6 Wildfire Engine.
Pulling up North Third Street we went all the way to the gated private timber area, which was at the confluence of Spring Creek. At that point I could see a freshly cut timber unit that still had yet to be choked and yarded to the landing, which was about halfway up the mountainous terrain. Heading up the gravel road I pulled Engine 13 to the side once we’d pulled up to the landing with a massive pile of fresh slash resting at the top.
Seeing a light column of smoke rise from beyond the edge of the landing, the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean in the background, and a crisp summer wind blowing in, I darned my protective fire gear, grabbed a pulaski and walked to the edge of the landing. Looking down I saw the fire, starting at the bottom of the hillside it was now running upward with the wind into freshly cut, down timber. The unit was covered in ‘green slash,’ and at the top of this fire’s trajectory was the massive pile of limbs, roots, bark and needles that I was currently standing right next to. It was all a ticking time bomb.
By that point other resources had arrived and the Wildland Fire Supervisor told myself and Graham to get the engine to a safer location, Rockaway Rural Fire Department was also on scene and working to suppress the flames when the fire first hit the slash pile.
The flame grew tremendously as it hit that mountain of fuel, coursed by the sustained wind the fire then had very real potential to become a monster. Roaring like a fire breathing dragon the blaze began to send thousands of burning particulates into the air, blown skyward by the breeze and consumed with embers the mountainside began to rain with fire. Puffs of smoke from the falling debris turned to small little columns as burning embers burrowed their way into decaying red-rot stumps, dried and crispy Vine Maple and Cascara leaves, shrubs of Oregon Grape, Huckleberry, Thimbleberry and Devil’s Club, all resting under a layer of freshly cut Douglas Fir, Spruce and Hemlock.
Spot-fires erupted everywhere around us as we were already engaging what we could with Engine 13’s hose and digging any immediate ember out of its fuel source in our immediate vicinity.
Over the radio we could hear that the inmate crews from Southfork Forest Camp were working from where most of the engines had, after losing control of the fire, fallen back to, at that point active flame of various spot-fires were joining together, it was time to retreat to a safer distance.
From that point on we were on foot, any member of my crew who was in the Tillamook area was now on the fire. Carrying up lengths of hose and running laterals from gated-Y valves, we spent the night assisting the inmate crews with water support and eventually were back in our engines by late evening. Running down to the water-tender, filling up and heading back up to the spur road at the top to blast the tank full of water on the myriad hot-spots that were still actively burning. The flame front already passed, now our job was to simply cool down the hottest areas so as not to allow it to spread in the still-constant wind on that Rockaway ridge top.
We were pulled off the Spring Creek Fire at eight the next morning. Tired from lack of sleep, physical exhaustion and the tempest of a hellish nightscape, I loaded up with the rest of the crew and went back to headquarters in Tillamook.
Going home after one of the longest nights of my life I hit the bed at 9:30 a.m. I knew I needed to check in back at the office so around 2:00 p.m. I went back in. Pulling into the driveway of the office I saw our 500 gallon larger engine sitting on the pavement with it’s motor rumbling. I saw my other crew members and they looked at me excitedly.
“Cameron, grab your boots and your gear we’re heading to a fire.” I thought to myself that the Spring Creek Fire in Rockaway was flaring up again, I asked where we were going.
“Somewhere up the Nestucca near Blaine,” he said. “Let’s roll!”

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