News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

British firefighters respond to Sisters

During an international conference of firefighting managers in Portland in 2014, Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District chief Roger Johnson got to talking with his counterpart from Hampshire, England. The professional friendship led to a one-of-a-kind annual exchange of personnel for a fortnight (14 days) every summer.

Even during the COVID-19 years, the two departments remained in close consultation and comradery via Zoom. The yearly visits in person have resumed, and Sisters is currently hosting Andy Weeks, Paul Reddish, Jack White, and Simon Corlett. Weeks and Reddish have 28 years each of experience, Corlett, 20, and White is coming up on six years.

That is some 80 years of collective wisdom they gladly share with their Sisters counterparts, which is reciprocated when Johnson sends personnel from here across the ocean. The cost is borne out of the training budget.

“Since lodging and meals take place in the respective fire stations we have only the air travel,” Deputy Fire Chief Tim Craig said. “With training academies or conferences in the states, we have housing, registration fees, and dining expenses, often more than the airfare.”

Johnson and Craig see the benefit far outweighing the cost.

This is Weeks’ second tour in Sisters; his last was in 2019. Craig took part on one of the exchanges in 2016. He and Weeks maintain quarterly Zoom calls or more often to check out ideas and strategies.

The UK does not come to mind when thinking wildland fires, but, in fact, forested areas in Britain are not exempt from destruction by fire. The UK has been rather hot of late. So hot, in fact, that parts of England and Wales recently received their first-ever red warning for extreme heat.

Coupled with months of below-average rainfall, a heat wave sparked wildfires on July 19 — Britain’s hottest day ever — in places as far afield as Cornwall, Kent and Pembrokeshire. Wildfires also gave the London Fire Brigade its busiest day since the Second World War.

Climate models predict summers in the UK will continue to become hotter, drier, and more like those of southern Europe. This means that wildfires may well increase in frequency there, making them more like regions in southern France, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, which regularly experience sometimes catastrophic wildfires.

It is wildfire that is at the core of the exchanges; however, the full gamut of fire services are cross-trained. Julie Spor, administrative assistant for the Sisters unit and Beverly Halcon, the District’s Fire Corps Chair were in Weeks’ care in June learning new methods.

Weeks tells us that at core firefighting is the same universally, with only minor differences in tactics. The mission — saving lives and property — is identical. His team has been valuable to the Sisters department in areas like structure fires, the majority of their calls — less so, ours.

A noticeable difference is in what the Brits call their fire engines: appliances. Also, their fire and ambulance services are separate entities, although they work hand-in-hand.

They are officially known as FRS (Fire and Rescue Service). The terms “fire house” and “station” are, as here, used interchangeably. There, as here, stations are staffed both by full-time, permanent firefighters and volunteers.

As for their experience in Sisters, outside the confines of the station and training, the four have found Sisters extremely welcoming and “charming,” a very British description.

The Nugget first met the quartet at Sheriff’s National Night Out last Wednesday. Corlett said: “How lovely the people and town are, with a wonderful sense of community.” Reddish commented on “How amazing the reception had been.”

Public opinion of first responders in the UK is high. The four all serve in large cities where it is not as customary to have as much fraternity with citizens as we do in Sisters. White noted the interaction between crews and townspeople, the friendships and first-name greetings.

Chief Craig has had them on a whirlwind of training and observation. They bunk at the Elm Street station, cooking and sharing meals. Weeks said that the biscuits and gravy more than made up for the bangers and mash they left behind.

Weeks is a wildfire tactical advisor covering a wide area of England with headquarters based, along with Reddish, in Portsmouth, 75 miles southwest of London on the English Channel. White and Corlett are based in Rushmoor, northeast of Portsmouth by 35 miles. Both are in the County of Hampshire, an area of 1,420 square miles with a population of 1.4 million persons.

The group heads home Friday.


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