Cooperative employees help stop fire from spreading through neighborhood
Story and photos by Craig Reed
Douglas Electric Cooperative linemen Ty Olds, Nathan Robbins, and Jason George recently—and quickly—became first-responder firefighters to a residential structure fire.
The men’s training and expertise are in electricity, power poles, and transformers, but they are aware of the threat of fire to their industry and surrounding communities. When linemen see smoke or fire, they immediately consider the impact on the electrical system.
While driving east on Highway 38 on August 4, Ty and Nathan saw smoke ahead while en route to the co-op’s work yard in Yoncalla after working on a job on the north fork of Smith River. The men were in separate rigs because of COVID- 19 restrictions and talked on their radios about what they were seeing: a fire in a residential neighborhood beyond a stand of trees.
They made a spur-of-the-moment decision to turn around, having already passed the turnoff for Burchard Drive just east of Wells Creek.
Within a quarter-mile, both found a wide spot in the highway, turned around, and came back to Burchard Drive, where they found a house engulfed in flames.
UPS driver Jed Massey from Coos Bay had arrived minutes earlier to deliver a package, but instead helped homeowners Pat and Shelley Ryan leave their house.
Ty and Nathan were next on the scene, pulling up into neighbor Lee Rose’s driveway. Jason arrived a few minutes later.
Ty had a 500-gallon water tender hooked to his truck. After quickly unrolling the hose, he used a big tree as a heat shield and sprayed water on the burning house. He quickly realized the water wasn’t going to save the house, so he turned the spray on the neighbor’s nearby well house, storage building, overhanging tree branches, and the ground in-between, where the electrical transformer for the two residences sat.
At the same time, Nathan deenergized the electrical transformer at a distant junction, cutting power to the house on fire and the Rose residence.
The linemen also helped Lee move his boat and some fuel away from the fire.
“With what they did, I know they saved my house,” Lee says. “They were a blessing. I can’t express in words how grateful I am for them being here. Never in my life have I seen a house burn to the ground so fast.”
The main Umpqua River is in the backyards of these homes.
“A lot of things were in my favor—the Douglas Electric guys arriving when they did and the wind blowing downriver,” Lee says.
Eleanor Blanton lives on Burchard Drive three lots away from the fire. Her house sustained a fire in 2008. She says she was concerned when she heard several explosions from the fire and then saw the smoke.
“It’s awful nice to have people come in and respond like they did,” Eleanor says. “There are usual heroes, and then there are exceptional heroes like them.”
A few minutes after the linemen arrived, rural fire departments arrived with more manpower and water, keeping the fire on the one residential lot.
Ty sprayed water for about 30 minutes before the tender ran dry.
After the site cooled down, the linemen reenergized the Rose house, allowing the yard’s sprinklers to come back on.
“It was nice everybody came together and was able to save other properties,” Jason says.
Keith Brooks, Douglas Electric’s general manager, says it’s mandatory for power crews to have a water tender with them at this time of year because of fire danger.
“Those water tenders are primarily for where we’re working,” he says. “But it’s great to have them when we’re out in our rural service territory and we see something that is not a power issue. Then we can use them to help serve the general public.”
Douglas Forest Protective Association staff provide the co-op’s linemen with firefighting training each year. The linemen also receive first-aid training.
“I think it’s part of our responsibility when we’re out there to be looking for things outside our jobs,” Keith says. “We try to send the linemen out there with as much information as they can have, so in an emergency—whether power related or not—they can respond and help.”
Keith says although fighting fire isn’t part of their job description, DEC linemen won’t hesitate when they see something that needs to be done.
“It’s a credit to them to see the possibility that someone might need help, to turn around and come back, and to go above and beyond,” he says. “It makes you feel good to count yourself as a co-worker with people like these guys.”
“We just reacted to what was going on,” Nathan says. “It’s second nature for us to make a situation as safe as possible for ourselves and for everybody else.”