fall 2015

Story and photos by Jurgen Hess

Burnout day, August 25, 2:00pm. Relative humidity nineteen percent, hasn’t rained in months, vegetation is extremely dry. Supervisors appear calm, testing the wind, but seem a bit anxious. Not much chit chat, everyone has done this before. The ignition crews work efficiently and fast.

Allen Liebovitz from the Washington Department of Natural Resources guided us ahead of the burnout fire’s flank. A hundred yards from us, a 150-foot wall of flames advanced to the north at an astonishing speed. It’s said you can’t outrun a fire, I believe that. The fire was roaring like a tornado. Embers and ash were raining down like snow. Smoke turned the day into night, vehicles needed headlights and windshield wipers on. I was glad I was wearing my Nomex fire retardant clothes and hard hat; fire shelter close by if needed. I carried two cameras, didn’t dare to open a camera to change lens. Safety officers made sure we were okay.

The 6,000 acre firing operation was designed to rob the natural fire of fuel. It would burn into the natural fire to stop its spread. The burnout was done by contract crews under the direction of the interagency Washington Incident Command Team #5 headed by Dave Leitch from Yakama, Washington. The burnout was started by the Woodpecker Forestry crew from Prineville, Oregon and handed off to the Grayback Forestry crew from Merlin, Oregon.

Photo 1 – Igniting. Photo: Jurgen Hess.

Photo 1 shows a Grayback crew member using a drip torch to ignite brush on the fire side of the road fuelbreak—the “black” side. The fire quickly moved into heavy fuels igniting tall conifer trees.

Photo 2 – Down the dozer line. Photo: Jurgen Hess.

In photo 2 the Woodpecker crew files down the dozer created fireline after starting the burnout.

Photo 3 – Igniting segment 2. Photo: Jurgen Hess.

In photo 3 a Grayback crew member ignites fuels in segment two.

Photo 4 – En route to spot-fire patrol. Photo: Jurgen Hess.

The fire-blackened team in photo 4 are lining up to walk to the fireline. This is a Bureau of Indians Affairs crew from Michigan. Their job was to put out small spot fires that were on the “green” side of the dozer-created fireline where fire was not wanted.

Photo 5 – Watching for spots. Photo: Jurgen Hess.

The burnout fire created a tall column of smoke with ash and hot embers starting spot fires ahead of the main fire. As long as the spot fires were on the black side of the line that was good. But the fire did start spot fires on the green side of the line along the main gravel road fuelbreak. Photo 5 shows a silhouetted Grayback crew member with his shovel ready to extinguish unwanted spot fires.

The 2015 fire season stretched fire-fighting resources. Firefighters from all over the US and abroad were called to the Northwest (and throughout the West). The Cougar Creek Fire had staff from as far away as New Zealand, Alaska and the Midwest. For a while the fire threatened the town of Glenwood.

Eventually rains came to help put the fire out.


About the author: Jurgen Hess is an award winning photographer from Hood River, Oregon. He worked for the US Forest Service for 34 years and gives educational presentations on wildfire. His photographs have been exhibited in galleries and published in print and online magazines and newspapers. One of his wildfire photographs was selected as a National Geographic Editor’s Choice. To see more of Jurgen’s photos, see Jurgenhessphotography.com.