MOLALLA, Ore. (Reuters) – Nicole West steered her bulldozer through the smoldering forest, pushing logs into the underbrush and away from the wildfires ripping through Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Her border collie, Oink, rode shotgun as West and a volunteer crew raced to clear a fire line.
Behind West, on the front lines of the 136,000-acre (55,000-hectare) Riverside fire, two young men pulled a water tank behind their pickup truck, struggling to douse the flames.
These are the men and women of the “Hillbilly Brigade” – about 1,200 in all who came together this past week to fight the state’s biggest fire in a century. They are credited with saving the mountain hamlet of Molalla, an hour’s drive south of Portland, after its 9,000 residents were forced to evacuate.
In a year when ferocious wildfires have killed at least 34 people and burned millions of acres in Oregon, Washington and California, the brigade has pulled off a miracle in the thick forests around Molalla in recent days, residents and fire officials say.
They organized and deployed themselves with little or no help from a small and overwhelmed local fire department – which focused on protecting the town center – or from state and federal agencies that were deployed elsewhere.
“We were left on our own to stop this,” said West, a 36-year-old ranch hand, as she briefly paused her dozer late Wednesday afternoon. “There wasn’t anybody coming from the state to save us. So we had to save ourselves.”
Mike Penunuri, fire marshal for the Molalla fire district, which has just 13 firefighters and 33 volunteers, called the massive ad-hoc effort “amazing.” Penunuri’s crews spent the past week hosing down flames that lapped at the town’s edge and battling back fires around farm houses.
The Hillbilly Brigade “improvised and turned their pickups into fire engines on the fly,” he said. “They put stock tanks in the beds and used pumps to put out hot spots. These are just regular guys from the area. They are not trained.”
‘I’M JUST THAT GUY’
Residents of Molalla went to sleep on Labor Day thinking it was safe from the wildfires, but unusual wind gusts stunned forecasters and officials and pushed the fire north at a rapid clip. In the early morning hours of Sept. 8, it looked like Molalla would be engulfed in flames, just as towns in southern Oregon had been.
The brigade formed quickly, amassing people who knew one another well and knew the difficult terrain all around them better than any outsider. They were lumberjacks and dairy farmers, friends and neighbors, cobbling together rudimentary equipment.