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Brother and sister fight fire near Eugene

Posted September 4

— As a wildland firefighting crew boss, Carlos Bencomo knows the significance of each decision he makes in the burning woods.

"You are responsible for everyone's life," Bencomo, one of more than 600 firefighters fighting the Jones Fire east of Eugene, said before starting a 13-hour shift at the fire line.

Bencomo, 25, of Medford oversees a 20-person hand crew for Ponderosa Wildland Firefighting. His 22-year-old sister, Itza Bencomo of Medford, is a squad boss, helping him make weighty decisions and communicating them to part of the crew, according to The Register-Guard (http://bit.ly/2wvtD2c )

Their father owns the Medford-based company, which employs two hand crews and focuses on reforestation and other work in the woods after fire season.

Fighting a large wildfire takes a small army. The Jones Fire camp, just west of Lowell, runs like the military with ground troops and leaders. Each day presents the firefighters with new missions and challenges.

Days and nights spent fighting wildfire are dirty, smoky and exhausting. But the hard work offers good money, and it's satisfying, the Bencomo siblings said.

On Thursday night, the Bencomos and 18 other firefighters had the task of preparing a controlled fire on the steep, heavily wooded southern flank of the Jones Fire in the Willamette National Forest. The crew worked along a remote dirt road off Big Fall Creek Road.

Working through the night allows firefighters to take advantage of cooler temperatures and calm winds. Yet darkness adds to the dangers of firefighting in rough terrain near heavy machinery.

Being adaptable is fundamental for firefighters, Itza Bencomo said.

"It can change at an instant," she said. "You just never know. That's why you have to be ready."

Night fight

Fighting the Jones Fire — one of more than a dozen large wildfires burning in Oregon — has been a 24-hour-a-day operation.

Lightning sparked the fire about 10 miles northeast of Lowell on Aug. 10. Officials don't expect the fire to be out until autumn rains fall. By Friday, the fire had burned more than 7,700 acres — more than 12 square miles.

Wildland firefighters try to stop the spread of wildfire in a handful of ways, said Marcus Kauffman, a spokesman for the Northwest Incident Management Team 12 — the interagency team managing the Jones Fire — and a state Department of Forestry biomass specialist in Springfield.

Crews dig "hand lines," removing vegetation in a long line through the forest about 3 feet wide. Bulldozers cut much larger lines, about 8 to 10 feet across. Air tankers drop retardant, creating lines where flames won't pass through slurry-coated woods. And firefighters light controlled burns.

All the efforts have the same goal. "They are removing the fuel from the fire's path," Kauffman said. Fuel is anything that can burn.

The night shift for the Ponderosa Wildland Firefighting crew lasted from 6 p.m. Thursday to 7 a.m. Friday.

Just before their shift began, firefighters ate a big meal. Wildland firefighters typically consume 6,000 or more calories per day. The dinner plate Thursday held pasta and rice, meatballs and sausage, and veggies. Some firefighters made a trip through a salad bar, grabbed dessert and washed it down with dark roast coffee.

After the meal, Carlos Bencomo and other crew bosses were briefed by higher-up fire officials and got their missions for the night. The Ponderosa crew was to prepare a small section of woods in a sharp curve of Forest Road 1830 to be burned in a controlled fire, or backburn.

By burning the patch of forest when temperatures are low and winds slight, firefighters could prevent wildfire from later charging through the same area and expanding.

Smoke in the air

The sun was setting when a pair of Ford vans carrying the Ponderosa crew moved up Big Fall Creek Road, steadily gaining elevation toward the fire.

On a side road in a small clearing surrounded by steep slopes, the drivers parked the vans pointed downhill in the direction of the way out of the woods should something unexpected occur. The crew gathered in a circle next to the vans.

Most of the Ponderosa crew members speak primarily Spanish.

"¿Ya estan listos todos?" Carlos Bencomo said, Spanish for "You all ready?"

The thick smoke did not phase the firefighters as they hustled into the dense forest, fanning out to check for any new wildfire. "It is usually like this," Carlos Bencomo said about the smoky conditions.

The gear worn by wildland firefighters looks much different than the clothing worn by firefighters who respond to burning buildings.

Instead of heavy jackets and pants, wildland firefighters wear light, loose-fitting clothes. The oxygen tanks and facemasks worn by city firefighters are noticeably missing.

Fire engines, tanker trucks and other equipment regularly rumbled past on the road, prompting shouts of "carro" from the crew. "Carro" is Spanish for car.

Some firefighters try to prevent breathing smoke and dust by wearing bandanas over their mouths. But Bencomo said the rags don't do much to stop smoke.

Scott Crawford, another spokesman for Team 12, said city firefighters aren't exposed to smoke as constantly as wildland firefighters. But city firefighters encounter toxins from burning plastics and other hazards. His regular job is with the Spokane Valley Fire Department in Washington, which fights structure and wildland blazes.

Smoke in the woods comes from natural sources, Crawford said, though wildland firefighters spend hours breathing it.

"There is just no practical way to repel all that smoke," he said.

Discussions about the long term impacts on health from wildland smoke exposure are ongoing, he said.

Studies over the past 20 years focus on the risks of wildfire smoke exposure for firefighters and research continues, though no federal regulations have resulted.

Overtime and hazard pay

Wildland firefighting has long been a unique work opportunity in the West. The seasonal work can consume much of a firefighter's summer and fall, and it can pay well.

Members of the private Ponderosa crew make an average of about $15 an hour base pay, but overtime earnings boosts their paychecks, Carlos Bencomo said. Overtime pays time and a half.

Pay varies for firefighters employed by private firms and the state or federal government. The state employs firefighters through the state Department of Forestry. The federal government employs firefighters at the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies.

State Forestry Department firefighters make $2,463 per month in base salary, or about $15.40 per hour, spokesman Jim Gerbach said.

Federal firefighters start at $11.95 per hour and go up to $17.93 per hour, according to a brochure for prospective firefighters produced by the Umpqua National Forest.

"A firefighter can expect to get upwards of 600 hours of overtime, depending on the fire season and length of commitment," according to the brochure. "In addition to overtime, firefighters earn Hazard Pay when fighting fires."

Hazard Pay is an extra 25 percent of base hourly earnings.

Earning firefighter pay means being willing to work many days in a row. The firefighting crews at the Jones Fire are working 14 consecutive days and then taking a day off. Eventually, they'll move to another fire, after being replaced, said Kauffman, Team 12 spokesman.

"A lot of crews on (the Jones Fire), this is their fourth or fifth fire," he said.

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