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Oregon Firefighter On What It's Like To Visit Towns Hit Hard By Fires

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Fire crews across the West are short on staff and equipment as they battle deadly megafires throughout Oregon and California. That puts a lot of stress on firefighters like Shannon Pettner, battalion chief for Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance in Sweet Home, Ore. That town lies directly between two of the biggest fires in the state, the Beachie Creek Fire to the north - which she is fighting - and the Holiday Farm Fire to the south, which her husband is fighting. We reached her at the Beachie Creek Fire camp, and she described what it was like to visit some of the towns that have been hit hard.

SHANNON PETTNER: It is devastating. It's - you know, some of the homes are still standing and are, you know, unharmed. But others are - there's nothing left. And you just can sort of see metal and concrete where the foundation was. And it's devastating. And, you know, I think the amount of smoke and fog that we're experiencing is altering how it looks as well. And once that clears, it's going to be very alarming for people to see and to come home to.

KELLY: As you've been working to try to get people evacuated and to safer ground, is there a story you can tell us, a story that's going to stick with you that captures what some of these people are going through?

PETTNER: You know, a lot of people don't want to leave their homes. They want to try to stay and save what they can. And, you know, I don't know whether they feel that they have nothing else left and so they're going to save what they have, but they know that we can't devote a crew to every home. And so we're seeing a lot of the locals putting sprinklers on roofs, bringing together water trucks and dozers and feller bunchers and all sorts of excavators, all sorts of equipment. And they're out there with us, working as a community to do what they can.

KELLY: How's it going for your family, if I may ask? I'm told your husband is a firefighter too, and you all have kids. What is that like to be a two-parent-firefighter household in this season where resources are stretched so thin?

PETTNER: So we met because we're in the fire service, so that's all we've really known - is to be a fire-service family. And this is definitely a unique situation for us, though. Our hometown is, to some extent, being threatened by both fires. And we have three children at home, and we had to leave them in the middle of the night and then rely on our fire family at home to sort of take care of them. And so we got word about five or six hours into our deployment that our home was on a level-two evacuation. And my boss, the fire chief of Sweet Home, contacted me and said, I'm sending someone to get your kids. They're OK, and they're not in a level three, but I don't want you to have to worry about that.

KELLY: Oh, yeah.

PETTNER: And my kids are safe with some family up north of Portland, so...

KELLY: You got them out.

PETTNER: Yeah.

KELLY: Oh, I'm so glad. Do you know if your house is out of danger yet?

PETTNER: I check my - I have, like, a Ring doorbell. I check my camera every day to make sure - (laughter) - make sure that everything's good there, but I also...

KELLY: That there's not flames creeping up the front lawn.

PETTNER: Right (laughter). But I also keep in touch with the fire chief, and he lets me know how the fires are going. And so, although they got a handle on the Holiday Farm Fire that was creeping down towards our community, there's a continued threat. So we're not out of the woods yet.

KELLY: Yeah. How long have you been fighting fires? And I mean, have you ever seen a fire season like this?

PETTNER: I've been in the fire service for 20 years, so we've had bad fire seasons without a doubt in Oregon. But to see areas that we're seeing burn is unprecedented. You know, people have jokingly referred to the forest around the Sweet Home area that's being affected by both fires as the asbestos forest because it doesn't burn. And now we're seeing it burn, and that's alarming.

KELLY: Well, Shannon Pettner, thank you so much for your time. We wish you luck. Please stay safe.

PETTNER: Thank you.

KELLY: She is the battalion chief for Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance in Sweet Home, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.