This sign stands nearby the Oregon Department of Forestry in Molalla Oregon. “Listen to the words taught by Smokey the Bear about preventing wildfires,” says Scott West, with the Oregon Department of Forestry. “Those fundamentals are still true.” The U.S. Forest Service’s Smokey celebrates his 75th birthday this year. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
This sign stands nearby the Oregon Department of Forestry in Molalla Oregon. “Listen to the words taught by Smokey the Bear about preventing wildfires,” says Scott West, with the Oregon Department of Forestry. “Those fundamentals are still true.” The U.S. Forest Service’s Smokey celebrates his 75th birthday this year. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
MOLALLA — As a young boy, Scott West dreamed of fighting wildfires like his dad. After he helped extinguish his first at age 20, it became a vocation.

“I can still picture it, that fire in Sweet Home,” says the 49-year-old West, an employee of the Oregon Department of Forestry. “There was the rush of the engines, the smoke column going up, the hustle of getting on your gear and figuring out how to go after it. You so want to stop it.”

The fire took hours to put out. “It was hot and smoky. I’d blow my noise and it would be black from the soot.”

West, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Stayton, recalls surges of adrenaline but not fear.

Arriving home late that night sweaty and grimy, “I was wiped out but proud,” says West. “There was a feeling of accomplishment that you and your fellow firefighters kept the fire from getting larger.”

One of his first thoughts was: “When’s the next one?”

‘You serve others’

West grew up with a deep respect for his father, who had a long and successful career managing fires for the U.S. Forest Service. One of his two older brothers also fought wildfires.

“I admired my dad and brother,” says West, a father of four. “It was this sense of wanting to do the same thing they did but also how I was raised, this idea that you serve others, that there’s a self-worth you get from doing something selfless.”

West recalls the Marble Cone Fire of 1977, when his father helped fight a blaze that scorched nearly 280 square miles in California. At the time it was the largest wildfire recorded in the state.

One day during the fire, West’s dad, covered in dirt and smoke, stopped by the house for a quick lunch. Before going inside he asked his 7-year-old son to listen to the car radio and monitor news about the blaze. West will never forget the magnitude of that wildfire and the responsibility his dad gave him.

He also vividly remembers the year prior, when his father took him to the Santa Barbara airport for a celebration in honor of the nation’s bicentennial. West got an up-close look at airtankers, which contain tanks for carrying and dumping water during firefighting operations. One had “1776” emblazoned on it.

The day linked in his mind “the service of firefighters and a real sense of patriotism,” he says.

“Seeing all of that and taking it in, that really was the spark for my desire to go into wildland firefighting.”

Fire operations

It’s a late-August afternoon and West is at his desk in the North Cascade District office of the Oregon Department of Forestry. It’s located in Molalla, a small town surrounded by farms. A crucifix hangs behind his computer, where his screen saver flips through family photos.

Oregon’s typical fire season runs June through October. Today the fire danger is high, “so at any moment I could get a call,” he says.

The Oregon Department of Forestry’s fire protection program is the state’s largest fire department, safeguarding 25,000 square miles of forests. West, who earned his forestry degree from Oregon State University, has fought hundreds of Oregon fires and worked his way up through a number of leadership positions in the agency over the past three decades. He began his career as part of a fire crew, using chainsaws, axes and other tools to create barriers of cleared land intended to halt a forest fire.

West notes there are big differences in wildland firefighting and structural firefighting. The latter — associated with the sirens people hear along city streets — deals with various types of structures, and fires typically are contained to smaller areas with easy access to water. Wildland firefighting, by contrast, typically means limited access to water and can include several square miles of fire.

But in both cases, the goal is to eliminate one of the three elements that sustain a blaze — heat, oxygen or fuel. Structural firefighters rely primarily on water to suffocate a fire. Wildland firefighters use water but also controlled fires, hand tools and larger equipment to remove dead trees, needles, grasses and trees — the fire’s fuel.

Since 2007, West has been one of a handful of individuals responsible for overseeing safety at wildland fires in Oregon.

West considers the weather and the terrain and what highways or communities might be affected by the fire. When necessary he makes evacuation recommendations to law enforcement, who then inform the public.

When he’s not on a wildfire, West promotes the long-term stewardship of forest lands by offering advice on harvest operations, vegetative management and reforestation.

Sacrifice

The career path West chose is unquestionably tough on family.

The early years were especially difficult, when he was performing more dangerous jobs on the fire line and cellphones weren’t common. He could be gone three or four days without being able to communicate with his wife.

When his oldest son, Connor, was 2 weeks old, West was sent out on a fire.

The Oregon Department of Forestry tries to keep assignments to 14 days, with a day of rest before sending individuals out on another assignment. But the shifts can be 10-12 hours long and stints can go longer than a couple weeks. West has spent 28 days straight on one fire.

Connor, now 21, is a student at OSU and plans to go into structural firefighting. He remembers his dad being gone large chunks of the summer.

“Looking back, there was some stuff that we missed out on,” he says. “Dad likes to be involved in all we do, so I know it’s hard on him.” But Connor, in ROTC and an Army reservist, respects his father’s sense of service, a quality that guides his own career goals.

“It is tough sometimes,” adds West. His youngest son, Luke, was going to turn 14 the day after the Sentinel interview. West had missed the past three birthdays.

“On hot days like today I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

Fueled by faith

West was raised Episcopalian and converted to Catholicism when he married. He says his relationship with God is “a huge part” of his job and family’s life. “I know my family and I have gotten a lot of prayers from our church community.”

Around his neck West wears a medal of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. He always carries a rosary, and it’s bedside in his tent at the fire camps. If he’s not too beat, he’ll pray a decade before falling asleep.

He says one of the spiritual hardships of fighting a large fire is being away from the sacraments. West has looked up churches nearby a fire, but it’s been impossible to get away to attend Mass.

He says he’d love to see a priest or deacon ministering to the men and women at the fire camps. “Even if they don’t say Mass or offer confession, it would be wonderful to just have a priest to talk to,” says West.

The Archdiocese of Portland currently does not coordinate such a ministry. West and a handful of pastors with wildland firefighters in their parish were not aware of any clergy who visit the camps.

Regular prayers are a constant for West, though. “If someone is injured you are always saying a prayer for them. But there are times when you’re fighting the fire and you keep losing ground and the fire is really kicking our butt,” he says. “In those moments it can be demoralizing. So I pray to God for guidance and I pray for support.”

West’s brother-in-law Mike Kroon is a fellow wildfire firefighter and member of Immaculate Conception Parish. He often sees West serving as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and as a Knight of Columbus.

West’s faith helps him be empathetic in his job and “know what to do and say to people in difficult situations,” says Kroon. “If someone loses a house or a pet, it helps him know how to talk with them.”

A calling

Between 2007 and 2016, 170 firefighters died during wildland fire operations in the United States, according to a 2017 report by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

West takes measures to make it as safe as possible, but “you are dealing with a natural event that’s unpredictable,” he says. He has never lost a colleague but has friends who have. There were some close calls early in his career, “when I put myself at too much risk,” he admits.

A change in topography or type of fuel burning can cause a fire that’s creeping along the ground to turn into a wall of flame in seconds.

“Or the wind can pick up and a rock or log above you can break free and fall on you,” says West.

Animals such as elk or deer, desperate to get away from the flames, “can come bounding out of nowhere and don’t care if you are in their way.”

Smoke inhalation also has an impact on health. “It can cause breathing issues later in life,” West says.

The work takes an emotional toll, as well. “One time there was a fire in a car, and someone couldn’t get out,” he recalls. “You see people’s homes burn and pets that didn’t make it. It has an effect on you.”

Federal fire officials say firefighters may be encountering some of the same emotional stress as combat troops. As part of his focus on safety, West tries to help firefighters obtain the support they need.

Nevertheless, West says it’s common for people to retire from firefighting work in the Oregon Department of Forestry after 40-year careers.

The work “becomes a part of you,” says West. “You hit times of burnout, but then the fire bell goes off and you just go.

“The career I chose goes with my faith, the teachings of the church, the desire to serve; it all fits together,” he adds. “We all have a calling. It has always been my calling to do this work.”

And for the first time in three years, West was home for his youngest son’s birthday.

There was a fire in the Medford area the day before, “but the local district did a great job and stopped the fire at 50 acres,” says West, the gratitude audible. “This year, we didn’t have to delay our tradition of going out to dinner to celebrate. It was on Luke’s birthday, and it was really special.”