Tanner Ryerson, 25, is a firefighter working with the Oregon Department of Forestry in its Southwest District. Between shifts, he sat down with The Other Oregon to talk about what it’s like working the fire season.
What got you interested in becoming a wildland firefighter?
Growing up, I had an uncle who was a teacher at the middle and high school that I went to. In the summers he was also a forest officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
When I turned 18, I was offered a job to work on an engine and was contracted out through the ODF. I always wanted to do something outdoors, fast-paced and exciting. So of course, I accepted it. After that first summer, I applied for a job with the department and got it. This is my sixth summer here now.
What is firefighting training like?
I went to Chemeketa Community College in Salem for firefighting during the off-season in the winters. So that helped me a lot.
But every year, when we first hire our new employees, we have roughly three weeks to a month of classes and outdoor training. This is learning things like what is the quickest way to deploy hose so we can get around the fires faster or learning what types of hand tools we can use to dig lines.
Also, we do a lot of safety training, like how to operate around one of our dozers that's working with us. We also do a little helicopter training, and aviation safety.
What was your first fire like?
I was 18 and my first fire was close to Shady Cove. We had about a one-acre fire and I showed up for an initial attack with the ODF and they had me start running the hose up the hill so that we could wrap it around the fire, to put out the edges; we call it a wet line. I was running a hose up, and a helicopter was dumping water right next to me and there was the wind coming from it — it was exciting.
What's your daily routine?
Every day is kind of something different. In the morning, we try to accomplish everyday things like training how to quickly fill the tank or learning different ways of quickly deploying our hose. Then a lot of us work on our task books; which is a way to get different qualifications.
In the afternoons, we go out to our assigned protection area and patrol. This helps us become more familiar with the roads and topography in that area. While we're out there we do a lot of prevention enforcement and those are things like illegal burning, like having a campfire during fire season.
But the whole time as we are out in our area; we are ready for the next initial attack. So if a new fire was reported, we all head to it.
What do you do in the off-season?
I pile snow for the Oregon Department of Transportation. We have a really cool program that keeps 12 of us firefighters working in the winter — we call it ‘Fire and Ice’.
How do you feel when you are out in the fire?
Each fire is kind of different. Some of them are pretty mellow but it's pretty exciting for the most part. It's always fun when you get the call.
It's hard to explain. When I head out there, everybody's rolling into the fire. There are around six engines, our dozer and often a helicopter. It’s like organized chaos for the most part. There's a lot of talking and a lot of communication. Once we get there, the first thing to do is to organize everything and get the chaos under control. It's a lot and it can be a little overwhelming at times.
Have you ever been scared?
I don't know if I've ever been scared because we have so much safety training. We have great overhead (supervisors) around here that helps us and we do our best to make sure you're never in a spot where you should feel scared.
What do you want people to know about your job?
Our goal is to keep all of our fires as small as possible and completely extinguish them quickly. A majority of our fires we keep under an acre and at the end of the year, we aim to have at least 98% at 10 acres or less. This way we’re always ready for the next call that comes in.