State of Wonder

Writer And Firefighter Sean Davis On Oregon’s Combustible Summer

By April Baer (OPB)
Lane County, Oregon Sept. 9, 2017 1:34 a.m.
A hillside burning in the Happy Dog Fire.

A hillside burning in the Happy Dog Fire.

Sean Davis / Courtesy of Sean Davis

Author, writing teacher, and Iraq War veteran Sean Davis has been fighting wildland fires on and off for 20 years. The past two months have found him back on the firelines at the North Umpqua Complex, the Flounce Fire, the Falls Creek Fire and the Happy Dog Fire.
He returned home to McKenzie Bridge in Lane County during the week, only to find his home under an evacuation order with the Rebel Fire nearby. We called him up (catching him amid a massive Lego build with his daughter) to hear what he'd seen.

On the work he did with fire crews:
What we were doing out there was blackening some areas. We actually fight fire with fire. When the bigger fire comes up, you light the brush off, in a place where you can control the fire you're causing. So when the bigger fire comes in, it has no fuel, no food. We watched dozer lines, and  patrolled neighborhoods and did some structure prevention and triage.

Davis grew up in McKenzie Bridge, in unincorporated Lane County, but lived in Portland recently. He moved his family back to his hometown this year.

Davis grew up in McKenzie Bridge, in unincorporated Lane County, but lived in Portland recently. He moved his family back to his hometown this year.

Courtesy of Sean Davis

On who he met on the firelines:
There's so many interesting people out there fighting fires. Especially the contractors who don't do it all the time — truck drivers and river guides. They bring all this life experience to it. it's really interesting.

On what he observed in southern Oregon:
It's dry. We had a pretty decent winter, with the rain, but overall it's just getting drier and worse. This fire season has the potential to last into October, November. And that's not normal. People in Portland and Salem and the Willamette Valley have seen smoke come in and say, "Wait this isn't normal." But the truth is it hasn't been normal for a long time. Two years ago I was in the Shasta-Trinity [National Forest] down in California. Thousands and thousands of acres were burning. We were trying to save actually towns, not just houses here or there. We were trying our best to foil houses, wrap them in foil so the cinders don't land and start fires. The fire season in California is eight months out of the year now. That's almost unheard of. My uncle's lived up here [at McKenzie Bridge] for 40 years. He was a Helitack and a wildland firefighter — he had his own company. He's never seen it like this.

On why he does it:
I'm an Iraq War veteran. I started fighting fires again four years ago just because I wanted that little bit of adventure. I didn't do it for environmental reasons, but it's turned me into a very conscious environmental person. I see it changing the years I've been doing this.

On what he's learned researching the history of wildland firefighting:
When it first started, after the Big Burn in 1911, [President Theodore] Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot and Edward Pulaski and all these amazing, bigger-than-life people are part of it. That blows me away. In the early years of contracting, if there was a fire, anybody who showed up, they'd put them to work and pay them pretty well. So you'd get these people who'd weld giant tanks to the back of flatbed trucks — very makeshift! — out there without the protections we have today. It's hilarious to hear some of these stories of people who want to help their communities and get out and do these things.

Davis’ book on the history of wildland firefighters will be published by Arcadia Press next year. He’s also taking part in a reading for Lidia Yuknavitch’s forthcoming book, “Misfit Manifesto,” Oct. 24 at Powell’s City of Books.

He’ll be back in the classroom at Mount Hood Community College and Clackamas Community College later this fall.