Temple native fighting west coast wildfires while many stand down due to COVID-19

  • Samantha Derrenbacher, a Temple native, is fighting wildfires in lieu of her usual work as a biologist for the Forest Service. Courtesy image—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/23/2020 3:40:02 PM

Federal COVID-19 policies mean that far fewer New Hampshire firefighters are assisting with the record-breaking blazes on the West Coast this year, but one Temple native is battling the flames in Oregon – even though she usually works for the Forest Service as a field biologist, not a firefighter.

Samantha Derrenbacher was deployed on Sunday to fight the fires in the Echo Mountain Complex southwest of Portland, Oregon, according to her father, Temple resident Dave Bond. “When she gave me the news… I was obviously concerned and was kind of surprised in a way. My first text back was, ‘Sam, are you trained in fighting forest fires?’” he said. Derrenbacher works as a field biologist for the US Forest Service, Bond said, but, unbeknownst to him, she and her colleagues went through all the requisite trainings to fight forest fires this June. It came in handy this year, when the professional firefighters in Oregon were spread so thin that all other qualified Forest Service employees got called in, he said, regardless of what they usually do. Bond has received text updates from Derrenbacher throughout the last week.

The fire is burning in the coastal range conifer forests and the terrain is rugged, Bond said. Derrenbacher and her crew have been working 12-hour shifts, driving an all-terrain tanker truck into the “black zone,” to extinguish hot spots where fires have already burnt the underbrush. “They can pop up anywhere,” Bond said. They cut down burning trees, dig out smoldering patches of ground and haul fire hoses, Bond said. The fire has destroyed 293 homes so far, he said. Derrenbacher has been sleeping in her van at her job site about an hour away from the fire at Mount Hebo in Siuslaw National Forest, where she was restoring native habitat before the fires broke out.

Derrenbacher believes she might be off fire duty at the beginning of next week depending on what the wind and rain does, Bond said. The fire was 75 percent contained as of Monday night, but it could spread if winds pick up in advance of a forecasted rain, he said. Things don’t necessarily go back to normal when the fires go out, though, since the Forest Service traditionally jumps in to replant immediately after a burn: bulldozed swaths of land can make effective fire breaks, but they are also prime spots for invasive species to colonize, he said.

While Derrenbacher fights fires on the coast, a different blaze crept within 14 miles of her and her husband’s home near Mount Hood, Bond said. Winds seem to be holding it back, for how. Derrenbacher graduated ConVal in 2007 and earned a marine science degree at the University of Maine, originally working in Woods Hole before changing course. 

In a typical year, New Hampshire firefighters would be deploying crews of 20 to fight such a blaze while camping in big groups in the area, with their travel and boarding expenses paid up front by the federal government, Chief of the New Hampshire Forest Protection Bureau Steven Sherman said. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a change in federal policy this year, effectively making it so anyone wanting to help would have to pay up front and get reimbursed later. Deployed crews are camping in smaller groups and some are staying in hotels, he said, and every crew is expected to be “self sufficient” in finding transportation, lodging, and food. That’s been the way it’s always been for any “single source,” a person who goes out to a fire alone to fill a specific role like an EMT or a medical unit leader, Sherman said, and some, like New Ipswich Fire Chief Meredith Lund, are out there again this year despite the policy changes. “But when you talk about an entire crew and getting everybody on the same page … it could be thousands of dollars up front,” Sherman said, which is prohibitive for a lot of would-be helpers.

 Usually, New Hampshire sends 30 to 60 firefighters out to blazes in other areas over the course of a year, he said. New Hampshire’s fire season ends around June, and some personnel are sent up to Quebec just as spring fires pick up in June and July up there. West coast fires usually occur from late July into September, which is when New Hampshire’s fall fire season begins, Sherman said. The deployments give local firefighters experience with situations they might not encounter in New Hampshire, which helps them respond more effectively at home. Mostly, though, firefighters participate in the program because they’re passionate about helping others, Sherman said.  “It’s hard to see fires and people in need and not be able to go out there,” he said. “I do feel for our firefighters that way but sometimes the decisions we make aren’t hard to make – because they’re the only ones we can make.”

This year’s drought has made a difference in the wildfires Sherman’s seen throughout the state, he said. The dry conditions make fires burn deep, which means that it might take several days to completely suppress fires that might have been extinguished in an hour earlier in the spring, he said. That said, traditional mutual aid agreements have mostly sufficed and they haven’t had to deploy the statewide mobilization plan so far, he said. The severity of the fall fire season will depend on the weather pattern through October, Sherman said. “If it stays like the past month with very low humidity and no precipitation, if it continues through October, we’re gonna see a bad fire season,” he said. “With the extent of drought statewide, it’d take multiple significant rain events to change the complete outlook for the fall,” he said. “I expect we’ll have a busy fall.”


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