THE OREGON FIRE LINES | AMERICANA | VICE


Uploaded by vice on Jan 25, 2012

Transcript:

[CHAINSAWS RUNNING]
TIM HENAGIN: Once you do it, you feel that adrenaline rush,
and you're on it until the end, and you
see it put to bed.
And do some of the mop up--
the clean-up and rehab.
Once you get a season of that, it's in your blood, and
there's nothing else.

THOMAS NARRATING: While the rest of the country is
flipping its lid over cyber crime, illegal aliens, and
mutagenic fuel gases, the Pacific Northwest still spends
its summer struggling with mankind's
first and oldest enemy--
fire.
In the last decade hundreds of thousands of forest fires have
scorched 5.5 million acres of American land.
The average Oregon summer sees 561 wildfires damage 16,000
acres of often pristine forest, causing mind-boggling
damage and devastation.
Last month we traveled to Medford, Oregon to team up
with a firefighting crew from Grayback Forestry.
Their job is to amble right up to a roaring blaze and dig a
line around it to choke the fire to death.
When there isn't a fire going, they cut back and relax by
walking up the side of a 45-degree cliff and clearing
out old underbrush which provides fuel for these fires.
They're easily the hardest-working
people in tree business.

THOMAS: Hey, it's Thomas.
It's 5:00 in the morning, or something.
We're in Oregon in a parking lot.
We're about to go into the forest and tear down trees so
other trees don't catch fire.

SHANE STANCLIFF: Today, the unit we're on now is in Rogue
River, which is a 45-minute drive.
It changes every different unit.
Usually every week, or every other week, you've got to grab
oil for chainsaws.

THOMAS: We've got to pile into this giant box on the back of
a pickup that they call a crummy.
I'm guessing for good reason.
It feels dumb.
I mean, these guys get up every morning this hour, but I
feel physically shaken.
I'm just not used to 5 o'clock.
It's probably a healthier way of doing thing.
All right.
I guess we've got to get in the truck right now.
CRAIG FRANCISCO: We usually meet at the shop somewhere
around 5:30 AM, 5:45 AM.
We'll load up the trucks that we're taking up to the unit.
Get everything ready.
Make sure the tools are in there.
Make sure we've got enough fuel and bottle oil.
Then we'll all head out.
About 6 o'clock we leave the shop.
And depending on how far, usually half hour to an hour,
it takes us to get to the unit.
You really get to know the guys you work with.
Everyone's about the same age and has the same interests.
We're working outside, so everyone loves the hiking.
If they're not into mountain biking, they're into ATV
riding, or dirt biking.
Everyone fishes, likes camping.
So it's easy to get along with everyone.
Everyone's down to earth and has the same interests.
Our oxygen tank is usually a handkerchief over us.
And if you're smart about it, and the smoke's going at you,
you just kind of step aside for a minute and let it pass
as the wind shifts.
If you can.
It's kind of rough.
Last year, it was my first season.
I didn't really have a long period away.
But you're gone.
You miss your family.
Your wife misses you and wants you home.
We did a fire here in town, and Roxy Ann was the mountain.
Probably a two-day night shift is what I did,
and that was out.
Before we come into something like this
we'll have a briefing.
And whoever is the incident commander of the fire at the
time will kind of tell us what to expect,
what to look out for.
We don't just show up and start running
at it with our tools.
There's the fire.
Let's put it out.
We usually have a pretty good plan.

Usually we'll do the bucket drop with the helicopters,
dropping water on them, dropping retardant on them to
slow it down to where it gets safe to work with.
It's a real slimy, slick, kind of wet material
that they'll drop.
And it gets everything red, so once the flame does get to it,
it slows it down enough to let us work a little bit
more in this area.
And once you get the line dug around it, you'll get the hose
down there and you'll start the perimeter.
Like we're here on the line, and the fire was right here.
If they had the water it slows it down.
We'll just start in 10 feet.
And we'll scrape everything hot back in.
We'll spread the pieces out and
extinguish the flames ourselves.
That's basically our job is to get what we can with the tools
and make the fire go out.
Things will grow back.
And if you guys were here a few months earlier, this would
have been green already.
Over time there will be some new trees.
MALE SPEAKER: So if you're allergic or not, OK, there's
an epi kit on the dash of my truck with the hazmat So if
you get stung, let me know and I'll let you jack yourself up.
THOMAS: So we basically just walked to the job site, and
we're all already beat.
This is a lot more vertical than I'm used to things being
this early.
Our camera guy puked.
I'm actually kind of jealous of him because I've still got
the full night's pizza sitting on my stomach.

The tree dust is playing hell with my sinuses.
JESSE KIENE: See, just imagine the fire moving uphill.
It gets into this brush, and then you have your smaller
mid-canopy, and then it just carries into the large trees.
So what the cutters are doing is they're coming up below us
here, working up the hill, and they're taking pretty much the
smaller trees, keeping it to a spacing so they're not just
clearing the forest.
And we're trying to manually recreate what a fire would do.
THOMAS: This is the first time I've seen Shane sit, and it's
been like an hour and a half of just straight walking
uphill with saw, destroying trees right and left.
SHANE STANCLIFF: This is easy.
I mean, we get higher up and it's like a lot of rocks.
The whole ground, you'll just take one step up and three
steps down.
So it's tough.
THOMAS: I am carrying my body weight in forestry supplies
going down a 50-degree incline to chop down some shrubs so
the forest doesn't destroy this.
SHANE STANCLIFF: That happens a lot, even with us, dude.

THOMAS: Slowly getting less enamored of this job.
SHANE STANCLIFF: Thank you.
Thanks for carrying it out here.
THOMAS: I really feel kind of worthless
compared to these guys.
I know if I had a chainsaw in hand, I'd just be getting it
caught in trees right and left, having the blade just
sucked down into everything I touch.
I'm going to leave this for the real guys.

JAKE ADAMS: I've been doing this for roughly three years.
I started back in '07.
Just moved up here.
I'd been teaching for a little while outside of Reno, and one
day I realized that I wasn't there for the kids.
I was there for a paycheck.
And I always told myself that if I found myself teaching in
that kind of situation that I have no business being there.
I'd always wanted to get involved with fire fighting,
so came on out, thought I'd give it a shot.
I do enjoy fighting fire.
And I love doing that part of the job.
However, if we can mitigate them before it comes down to
getting to a big point, I think we're
better off that way.
You're with the same guys, the same 20 people for 14 days,
possibly 21 days at the time, and if you have thin skin, and
you can't take a joke, then you're going to have trouble.
So everyone really tries.
And I think especially nowadays, we've been able to
really stay nice and light-hearted while staying
safe out in the woods, and it's been great.
And I'm loving it right now.
It's cheaper than a gym membership.

THOMAS: Feels brisk.
MALE SPEAKER: Underwear that looks like hairy butt cheeks.
[LAUGHTER]
THOMAS: At least I chose today to wear probably the gayest
underwear I own.

MALE SPEAKER: Here's your belt strap.
Now, you want it to ride low.
THOMAS: Yeah?
MALE SPEAKER: Yeah.
THOMAS: OK.
I'm currently dressed like a Frosted Mini-Wheats version of
a forest fire fighter.
And we're going to go dig some line.
There's not a fire right now, but it is good practice.
Line is basically a ditch that you surround the fire with,
and then it can't get over that.
TIM HENAGIN: You're not trying to do the
whole line by yourself.
You're going to come along and do this,
and then just a swipe.
It's pretty much like this.
Move a little bit, like that.
Move a little bit, like that.
MALE SPEAKER: Cutters are the first one
in, cutting the line.
And then the swampers come.
They clear everything out.
And then the diggers come in behind them
and do a fire line.

TIM HENAGIN: They're about two minutes into it.
THOMAS: Yeah?
And you keep doing this for how long?
TIM HENAGIN: 16 hours, sometimes.
THOMAS: Oh my god.

This is extraordinarily hard work.
It's impossible to keep my eye on where I'm hitting
and where I'm going.

And that's with no fire in front of me.
TIM HENAGIN: In the oak.

What do you think?
THOMAS: That's a bit laborious.
That's about, like, a 50th of your average shift?
TIM HENAGIN: Oh, yeah, at least.
That was probably, six minutes.
THOMAS: How much distance did we cover?
TIM HENAGIN: 100 feet, maybe.
Seven hours, we'll do 10,000 plus feet.
THOMAS: 100 times that.
CRAIG FRANCISCO: We started getting it pretty good right
before we quit.
We were spaced out perfect.
MALE SPEAKER: Having fun?
TIM HENAGIN: Not bad, for a rookie, Tom.
THOMAS: Thank you.
TIM HENAGIN: We'd take you on the crew.
THOMAS: I'd be short-lived, I think.
TIM HENAGIN: Oh, you'd be surprised.
I've been working in the woods all my life.
I started out logging.
It's like coming full circle for me.
I've cut the trees down, the big timber, and set the
chokers, hauled them out of the woods, and done a little
bit of planting.
Now I'm back thinning it out and helping
prevent the wild fires.
You want to use back here-- from here back on your saw.
THOMAS: Never at the tip.
TIM HENAGIN: Yeah, the closer you get to here when you're
limbing, the more chance you have of kickback.
And remember, you always want to wrap this
thumb around the handlebar.
Don't cut with it up there like that.
You have no control of the kickback.
This will come right out of your hand.
When you grab that chainsaw you mold onto it.
It becomes part of your body.
One of the things that turns my stomach the most is the
chainsaw cut.
It cuts quick and to the bone, and when it stops, those teeth
pull everything out.

And then just imagine doing that all day.
The key to happiness out here is a sharp chain.

THOMAS: Down we go.
SHANE STANCLIFF: Good job.
Now the fun part.
THOMAS: I am sore and sweaty and ant-bitten.

I've got sawdust in my mouth.
I've got chips under my eyelids.
I've got weird, vibrationally numbed
fingers form the chainsaw.
I feel very good about myself, though, because I've done an
honest day's work.
Helping the forest and keeping people from having their
houses burned down is a pretty good way to spend your time.
Also gets you in decent shape.

Firefighters around the world are universally acclaimed and
considered heroes.
Forest firefighters, though, are kind of in a league to
themselves.
They basically go into one of the deadliest
situations in nature--
something that we've all been instinctually hard-wired to
avoid on sight or smell, no matter what--
and get right up against the flames and then do one of the
hardest jobs imaginable, which is digging a ditch.
It's some of the hardest work I think exists.