Firefighter Scott West, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Stayton, helped coordinate responses to the Lionshead, Riverside and Beachie Creek fires for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “The fires were so huge, so immense, and normally we could grab help from other districts, federal partners and contractors,” said West. “But everyone was busy.” (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Firefighter Scott West, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Stayton, helped coordinate responses to the Lionshead, Riverside and Beachie Creek fires for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “The fires were so huge, so immense, and normally we could grab help from other districts, federal partners and contractors,” said West. “But everyone was busy.” (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

It was 3 a.m. when Scott West climbed into bed Sept. 8, the day after Oregon’s fires turned catastrophic. He’d had no time to process the night’s blur of activity, the power and omnipresent feel of the blazes, or that he’d likely saved two lives.

The veteran firefighter’s alarm buzzed at 5 a.m. and, with a boost from strong black tea and adrenalin, he was soon en route to his Oregon Department of Forestry office in Molalla.

“You just get up and go because people are counting on you,” said West, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Stayton.

Over the next two weeks he’d spend several 16-hour shifts coordinating a response to the conflagrations that statewide have burned more than 1 million acres, killed at least 10 people and destroyed thousands of homes. Not until mid-October, with the fires under control, could West begin to reflect on all that occurred.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve never seen fires like this; it’s mind-blowing what happened,” said the 50-year-old. “Now we are starting to feel the full stress from everything. For those in their first season of firefighting, some are never coming back; others learn it’s their calling.”

As for West, there wasn’t a moment he viewed the work as anything but a vocation. “I believe this is what God had planned for me to do,” he said. “I wish the devastation hadn’t happened. But I’m glad I could use my knowledge to help.”

‘Like the surface of the sun’

The Beachie Creek Fire initially was a small, largely unexceptional wildfire smoldering in the Willamette National Forest. Seemingly overnight it exploded into one of the most destructive fires in the state’s history.

West and his team at the North Cascade District office of the Oregon Department of Forestry had been monitoring the fire since it was ignited, most likely by lightening, in the middle of August.

On Labor Day, Sept. 7, while West was at the district headquarters in Lyons, a warning was issued for a historic east wind.

According to fire experts, rare easterly winds are Oregon’s version of the dry, downslope Santa Ana winds that produce infernos in California. The gusts pushed fires through trees and brush that had dried out over a summer in which most of Oregon was classified as being in moderate to extreme drought.

West, among a handful of individuals in the state overseeing safety at wildland fires, decided to stay late in the office and track the situation.

The gales caused matters “to quickly get pretty crazy,” recalled West. Crews went out to tackle the accelerating Beachie Creek Fire as well as another fire sparked by the powerful winds.

As the night progressed, West began to worry about a couple of employees who earlier that day had gone to a remote outpost in the Willamette National Forest to retrieve a piece of equipment. By 9 p.m. they hadn’t returned and were unreachable via radio.

“There was lots of wind and fire activity, so I volunteered with a colleague to see if we could find them,” said West.

With his ever-present medal of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, dangling from his neck, West headed to the outpost in his truck. Limbs snapped from the winds and crashed around the vehicle, which bumped along a road carpeted with tree branches. He steered around a number of downed trees.

They eventually found their colleagues unharmed. The men had been trapped on one side of a fallen tree but had a chainsaw and were planning to cut their way through to access the road.

West called headquarters, and after hearing the update his boss asked if he’d be willing to assist with a fire on a hill just east of Gates. The flames were headed toward the town and spotting into a fire camp established at the local school.

West got back in the truck.

A hill just east of Gates is ablaze Sept. 7. (Courtesy Levi Hopkins/Oregon Department of Forestry)

When he arrived at the slope “it was like the surface of the sun,” he recalled. “The wind was blowing hard and the fire was intense.”

As he assessed the scene, West learned that people might be staying at a nearby horse camp in the Santiam State Forest, now partially ablaze. Fires seemed to be popping up everywhere.

Crews arrived at the hill and operations were in order, so West was asked to investigate the camp. He knew the area and felt confident he could navigate the wilderness.

Passing through the town of Gates, he saw the fire camp that had indeed caught fire. “The firefighters were fighting the flames while trying to get all their resources out,” said West, who knew he’d be most helpful staying on course.

Soon after driving up the small, unpaved road to the horse camp, he found horses in a stall and two people asleep in a camper.

West woke them, the couple hastily packed, and the group caravanned out. It was just in time.

“You could see the glow of the fire coming toward us,” said West. He has no doubt that if he hadn’t gotten there when he did, the couple and their animals would have died.

West finally went home around 2:30 a.m. When he awoke a few hours later, he learned the district headquarters in Lyons had burned to the ground earlier that morning.

Raging fires and resilience

West couldn’t spend time or energy contemplating the whirlwind night or the charred headquarters. For the next few weeks he was the incident commander for four Clackamas County fires and helped coordinate responses to the Lionshead, Riverside and Beachie Creek fires that together burned 500,000 acres, more than five times the size of Portland. Approximately 170,000 of the scorched acres were on land managed by the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Because wildfires had been raging across the West Coast for weeks, resources were extraordinarily scarce.

“The fires were so huge, so immense, and normally we could grab help from other districts, federal partners and contractors,” said West. “But everyone was busy,”

His district had 18 seasonal and four full-time staff on the three blazes. By comparison, there were nearly 2,500 personnel fighting Oregon’s 55,000-acre Douglas Complex Fire in 2013.

He recalled the frustration and heartbreak he felt when someone called to ask for help as fire approached the family home.

“I had to say, ‘Sorry, we have nothing to send you.’ That’s something that we in fire service never, ever want to say.”

There were stretches it felt like they weren’t making any progress, “and we were getting pretty badly beat up.”

But staff pressed on. Even when employees needed to evacuate their homes, they showed up to fight fires. One colleague’s house burned; another’s was badly damaged.

“The resilience has been inspiring,” West said.

For several days his own family was on a Level 2 evacuation notice, meaning they needed to be prepared to leave immediately. It was the first time in his long career that his family was affected directly by a fire.

The father of four recognizes his work takes a toll on the household. Early in his career, when he was engaged in more dangerous jobs on the fire line and cellphones weren’t as common, he could go days without communicating with loved ones.

But not being present when his wife needed to pack up precious belongings in case of an evacuation was a new challenge for him and for her. It deepened his empathy for evacuees and will inform how he handles evacuations in the future.

“Going through it yourself gives you a new perspective on what people are dealing with,” said West. “I knew it was hard, but I was immune to how tough it is to decide what to take, what to possibly leave behind forever.”

‘The Lord wanted me here’

This season’s fires have affirmed for West how “beautiful things can come from tragedy.”

“God does amazing work; he brings us back to what’s truly important in life,” said the Catholic convert.

West shared an example from a friend who’d been working on the fires in Southern Oregon. On three occasions the friend was approached by people asking if he wouldn’t mind praying with them.

“Here is this government official, and they are asking if he could pray with them out in the open,” West said. “It was incredible.”

He’s also seen the community come together to provide practical support to those who’ve suffered losses.

“People offer food, a shoulder to lean on and help with cleaning up,” West said.

The St. Anthony Council of the Knights of Columbus, to which West belongs, turned its hall in Sublimity into the official donation and distribution site for a wildfire relief fund.

“It’s a ministry of love,” he said.

West, who’s always prayed on the job, has been upping his talks with God. “I’ve been praying that people can heal, praying for those who must deal with great loss.”

With the fires now mostly contained, West’s current work includes monitoring islands of unburned fuel within burned areas. A dry spell could cause such patches to flare up.

He’s also considering how best to assist wildlife, making sure waterways are safe, overseeing the harvest of fallen or partially burned trees, and planning for reforestation.

“It’s going to be years before the trees and vegetation grow back,” he said.

“There’s also a big fiscal side of this, and we’ll be dealing with that for months if not years.”

West finally has been able to meditate upon all that’s transpired, and he recently had a revelation.

After spending essentially his entire professional life fighting fires in some capacity for the Department of Forestry’s North Cascade District, he applied earlier this year for a promotion elsewhere. He didn’t get it.

“I was pretty bummed,” admitted West. “But when I look at it now, there’s a reason the Lord wanted me here.”

His knows his extensive understanding of the region was an asset to the fire response efforts, and he wonders what would have happened if he’d not volunteered to help during that unforgettable night of wind and flames. Would someone have gone to the horse camp to wake the couple?

“There are reasons why we get jobs or don’t get jobs or are presented with struggles,” West said. His voice faltered and he cleared his throat.

“There’s something else that God has planned for us, but we are not always aware of that until later. This is one of those times.

“I believe the Lord had a hand in this,” said West. “I was where I needed to be.”