Editor’s note: Nothing in the following story is meant to in any way diminish the heroic sacrifices and superhuman efforts displayed by the courageous men and women of Molalla Fire, Colton Fire, Clackamas Fire and all others who have been working tirelessly on the front lines of this crisis.
Much to his surprise, Bob Oblack’s home on Dickey Prairie Road in Molalla was not destroyed by a raging wildfire Friday.
When he found it intact the following day, he wondered what had happened. He soon found out in a text from a neighbor: “A 100% redneck fire crew rolled through here yesterday. They stopped the fire a mile from my house.”
The “Redneck Fire Crew” may not be exactly how they would describe themselves, according to another resident, whose husband — a 20-year veteran of the fire service, including fighting wildland fires in California — helped lead the effort.
“I don’t know how P.C. that is,” she said with a laugh. “In general, this was just some damn, good-hearted men and women, who saw there was a job there that needed to get done and they did it.”
Most of the residents interviewed for this story asked not to be named, saying they do not want or need recognition for their heroic actions.
“They don’t want an award or their names in the newspaper,” a woman said. “They just did what they felt needed to be done. They did it to help the grandparents and the kids and the families — to protect everything we have out here.”
Another reason for the anonymity, perhaps, is so none of those involved — including some off-duty firefighters — would face repercussions for working outside of the official chain of command. And so they can speak freely about a government response that they feel more or less abandoned them to fate and the will of nature this week.
“I have not seen one paid crew in the last three days,” said an area resident, who has been helping the volunteers by delivering food and water. “On Thursday, they called off all resources and said the feds were going to come in, and we believed them. Then, my husband went out there early the next morning, and there was not a soul on the fire.”
The long tongues of the Riverside Fire — which has torched 130,000 acres in Clackamas County, including areas of Molalla, Estacada and Colton — were bearing down on them, and they felt they had no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
“It’s me and our community and our neighbors that are going to save each other,” was how one resident put it. “There’s nobody else.”
Editor’s note: Fire agencies serving on the front lines of the sprawling Riverside Fire were pulled back Thursday in what was termed a “tactical pause.” However, they remained in the areas impacted by wildfire and continued their dedicated efforts to protect residents’ homes and livelihoods.
So, they came, the volunteers — or, if you prefer and can stand being less than P.C. — the “rednecks.”
Shortly after 11 a.m. Friday morning, a continuous line of over a hundred vehicles drove up the curvy, unlined country roads, converging on the area of Ramsby Road and Kuban in Molalla.
They came in trucks, water wagons and tenders, refill tanks. They came with excavators, dozers, skid-steers and other heavy equipment.
They came through word of mouth. They were siblings, parents, children, friends and neighbors.
As one resident eloquently put it: “These are the people that we share Hobart and Viking Stadiums with under the Friday night lights. These are the familiar faces in our 4th of July parades and at your kid’s baseball games. These are our family businesses, the people we see in the grocery store, the off duty first responders and even the neighbors you thought didn’t care.”
“They were not firefighters — not volunteer firefighters, even,” another resident said. “They were good old boys who care about the community and getting stuff done.
“They weren’t nothing fancy: Most rolled up in pickup trucks that were 12 different shades of put together. They loaded up 10 guys in the back and away they went.”
They circled up in a smoky hayfield to plan their attack on the fire waiting in a forested canyon below. They followed a lead dozer, blazing a trail down the steep, dense hillside, cutting a wide firebreak to protect the people, livestock and property on Ramsby Road.
Throughout Friday, smaller crews peeled off to address hot spots, while a larger contingent was directed to help at a fire up Sawtell Road at Elk Prairie.
The fire came, following the line of a small canyon — within spitting distance of Ramsby and Dickey Prairie roads — but would ultimately advance no farther. The firebreak held.
The volunteers worked relentlessly until the threat of fire was gone.
“There were a lot of young kids,” said a female resident. “My husband joked that he was one of the old guys. He’s 35. But they worked hard and did everything they were told. He said they worked harder than most of the crews he had worked with before.”
“Proud” was how one resident described it.
“I guess that’s kind of a hashtag now or whatever, but it’s true,” she said. “We are proud of this community, the people who are out there doing the grind for no pay. They get nothing — it’s just out of the goodness of their heart and to save people.”
Another said she wanted the story of the Ramsby Road volunteers to be told because of all the negativity — much of it political — that she sees on social media.
“Even though there’s been fire and destruction, there’s been so much good out here,” she said. “I didn’t want people to miss that.”
And the residents are indeed grateful.
“They saved this property as far as I’m concerned,” said Oblack. “I’m just so blessed and so humbled by the support of the neighbors around here.”