One can only imagine the hesitancy employees of the Canby-based Wilson Construction might have felt in approaching their boss to ask if they could be exempted from work to fight fires in the rural communities in which they live — and to bring with them hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of the company’s equipment.
Actually, longtime Wilson fleet operator Scott Carr and his comrades had initially asked for the use of just one truck. But Don Wilson — president of the electrical utility contractor and son of the company’s founder, Matt O. Wilson — wasn’t having it.
“Don said, ‘Take the guys. Take the equipment. Take whatever you need,'” recounted Tony Helbling, logistics manager for Wilson. “‘Go where you need to go, and do what you need to do.’ It was pretty cool. Honestly, I think they were a little surprised, but that’s the just the kind of guy Don is.”
Helbling mentioned another example from several months ago, in which Wilson helped serve as a critical lifeline for local restaurants during the early days of the Covid-19 closures, by ordering lunch for all of his employees from a different establishment each day — and always picking up a tab.
About 10 Wilson employees have been aiding in the firefighting efforts for several days now, working to contain the sprawling Riverside Fire and other blazes that have ripped through rural Clackamas County.
Most of them are normally assigned to the company’s Woodburn mechanic shop. Most of them live in the Molalla area. They are trained in wildland fire suppression techniques — if not necessarily experienced.
“When we go out and build power lines, especially in places like California, we have to have the ability to do fire suppression on-site,” Helbling explained. “We don’t normally have to do it, but we need to be able to.”
In a Sept. 11 Facebook post, Carr described his enthusiasm for the work as well as his plans to “hit the ground running” the following morning.
“I don’t know how to get involved or what authorities to coordinate with,” he said. “At a minimum, I will find fire and attack it.”
They were certainly well-equipped for the job. Thanks to Don Wilson and Wilson Construction, the crews brought with them a 4,000-gallon 6×6 all-wheel drive water truck, three F450 4x4s with 500-gallon pumps, a 4×4 Gator with a 100-gallon pump and a 500-gallon “water buffalo” trailer.
They also brought “lots of backpack water carriers, axes and shovels,” because, as it turned out, much of the work has been quite manual.
“They’ve been doing some work on the firelines with the trucks and hoses,” Helbling said. “But yesterday, they were doing mop-up work — walking out through the areas the fire had burned and finding the hot spots where it could rekindle. You have to dig those up and put them out to make sure it’s fully contained.”
The Wilson crews have spent several days in the Scotts Mills area, said Chuck McClaugherty, who works for a different company but knows Carr from the Canby Rod and Gun Club. He jumped at the chance to pitch in for the weekend when Carr asked for volunteers.
“Wilson Construction Co. has some amazing guys and amazing equipment that they brought out to the fires,” McClaugherty said. “There were lots of hot spots flaring up. So we just worked the sides of the roads helped put them out.”
On Tuesday, they were dispatched to the firelines several miles east of Molalla.
There are, obviously, hundreds of others in the area fighting these same fires, from trained, experienced and professional firefighters with federal, state, out-of-state and local agencies to civilian volunteers or construction employees doing pretty much the same thing that Wilson is doing.
It may sound a little chaotic, but it’s not, Helbling says.
“We’re a very small part of a very big team,” Helbling said. “There is no adversarial relationship between the full-time firefighters, the loggers, the excavators, the forest service, the contractors. I think what it comes down to is there are just not enough people to fight the fires. Everybody is stretched so thin.”
And it works, because they all have the same goal in mind, according to McClaugherty.
“It was amazing to see so many volunteers helping and donating equipment and manpower,” he said. “I saw lots of construction companies, excavation companies, farmers, loggers, neighbors, co-workers all pitching in, all helping however they could.”
Though they have been doing the work for several days, Helbling said the Wilson crews see a clear distinction between themselves and the dedicated first responders who have chosen this life for their profession.
“It’s one thing to be a full-time firefighter,” he said. “It’s another thing to protect your home and community, and that’s what we’re doing.”