By Brad Brooks
MOLALLA, Ore. (Reuters) - Nicole West steered her bulldozer through the smoldering forest, pushing logs into the underbrush and away from the wildfires ripping through Oregon's Cascade Mountains. Her border collie, Oink, rode shotgun as West and a volunteer crew raced to clear a fire line.
Behind West, on the front lines of the 136,000-acre (55,000-hectare) Riverside fire, two young men pulled a water tank behind their pickup truck, struggling to douse the flames.
These are the men and women of the "Hillbilly Brigade" - about 1,200 in all who came together this past week to fight the state’s biggest fire in a century. They are credited with saving the mountain hamlet of Molalla, an hour’s drive south of Portland, after its 9,000 residents were forced to evacuate.
In a year when ferocious wildfires have killed at least 34 people and burned millions of acres in Oregon, Washington and California, the brigade has pulled off a miracle in the thick forests around Molalla in recent days, residents and fire officials say.
They organized and deployed themselves with little or no help from a small and overwhelmed local fire department - which focused on protecting the town center - or from state and federal agencies that were deployed elsewhere.
"We were left on our own to stop this," said West, a 36-year-old ranch hand, as she briefly paused her dozer late Wednesday afternoon. "There wasn't anybody coming from the state to save us. So we had to save ourselves."
Mike Penunuri, fire marshal for the Molalla fire district, which has just 13 firefighters and 33 volunteers, called the massive ad-hoc effort “amazing.” Penunuri's crews spent the past week hosing down flames that lapped at the town’s edge and battling back fires around farm houses.
The Hillbilly Brigade "improvised and turned their pickups into fire engines on the fly," he said. "They put stock tanks in the beds and used pumps to put out hot spots. These are just regular guys from the area. They are not trained."
'I’M JUST THAT GUY'
Residents of Molalla went to sleep on Labor Day thinking it was safe from the wildfires, but unusual wind gusts stunned forecasters and officials and pushed the fire north at a rapid clip. In the early morning hours of Sept. 8, it looked like Molalla would be engulfed in flames, just as towns in southern Oregon had been.
The brigade formed quickly, amassing people who knew one another well and knew the difficult terrain all around them better than any outsider. They were lumberjacks and dairy farmers, friends and neighbors, cobbling together rudimentary equipment.
On Sept. 8, Terry Price heard a neighbor banging at his door at 1 a.m., warning of fast-approaching fires about 4 miles (6 km) south of Molalla on the Missouri Ridge. The Riverside fire was barreling down a valley toward his place as the Beachie Creek fire approached from the southwest.
In that moment, the 59-year-old Price, a salty and assertive man, became the de facto Hillbilly Brigade leader in this section of the county, neighbors said.
"I dole things out for the boys to do," Price said. "I'm just that guy. It's what I've always done."
The brigade filled a vacuum left by the absence of any government help, he said. The fires raging across Oregon have depleted the state's resources to battle the unprecedented blazes.
"I was in horrible disbelief that nobody showed up," he said.
The Oregon Department of Forestry said it was overwhelmed trying to fight fires across the state. Its district near Molalla has just 26 firefighters and not near enough equipment to respond to the massive fires in the region, said spokeswoman Joy Krawczyk.
"We cannot be everywhere at once, as painful as that is," she said. "As first responders, it's heartbreaking to us that people on the ground felt abandoned."
Governor Kate Brown saluted the ad-hoc brigades of Molalla at a news conference on Thursday, saying fire commanders had acknowledged the "real heroes" as being the "local community members, the majority of them volunteers, who worked tirelessly to save their community."
'THEM AND A SHOVEL'
Price and other landowners quickly realized they needed to save themselves and started calling one another. Within a couple of hours, Price's driveway became the headquarters for his area.
“It seemed like about everybody dropped everything and showed up by dawn," Price said. "Even if it was just them and a shovel. They came to help."
Dairy farmers brought water trucks that they normally use for their cattle. Loggers had smaller water tankers.
Price said the crew on Missouri Ridge had no access to water. So he set about ripping 20-foot-wide (6.1 m) fire lines in the forest with a bulldozer, which itself caught on fire at times as the trees blazed around him.
Price's 30-year-old son, Breck, guided him around massive tree trunks as he pushed forward. For two straight days, he cut through the earth - and kept the fire at bay about 100 yards (91 m) from his house.
The sky was black and purple. The wind drove the firestorm directly toward his house. Price had never seen anything like it. “It’s beyond scary,” he said.
On Wednesday, Matt Meyers, a 41-year-old power company employee, emerged from the fire’s haze on a mountainous patch called Elk Prairie. He had a chainsaw on his shoulder and a week’s worth of grime caked to his face.
Meyers and his crew were on their ninth straight day of battling blazes for more than 20 hours a day. He explained that he was acting as a type of scout, pushing ahead into the forest ahead of the dozers. He cut down "snags" - dead trees that could quickly fall onto the machinery and drivers - and blazed the initial trails into the forest.
The operation thrived on close and long-standing relationships, he said.
"I'm up here fighting these fires with people I've known my whole life," Meyers said. "Communication was easy: We could just stand at the tailgate of a truck and say: 'Steve, do you remember where Brian killed his first buck? You take your crew there.'"
The result was a victory - for now - over what had seemed like an overwhelming threat. The Beachie Creek and Riverside fires are not yet contained, leaving residents on edge. But many are optimistic that the miles of fire lines the brigade cut through the forest will provide a buffer if the winds blow the flames back their way.
"I think we saved the damn town, to put it bluntly," Meyers said. "I'm a humble man, but I feel comfortable saying that."
Asked what it meant to him to see his community come together to save itself, Meyers said: "If I had not sweated out all my water, I think I would cry just thinking about that."
(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Shannon Stapleton; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Brian Thevenot)