Work hard, be happy. Don’t let your mind convince your body you are too good for hard work. Learn how to do things yourself. Surround yourself with positive proactive people. Work hard and be happy.
Introducing Pacific Oasis Wildland Firefighting. Located right here in Southern Oregon. Pacific Oasis is a family-owned business that, along with a team of amazing employees, has dedicated the past 20 years to wildland firefighting around the country. In today’s interview, I speak with local owner and founder Steve Dodds to learn more about his extraordinary company and work/life culture that has helped create long-term jobs and friendships.
Hi Steve, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today and congratulations on Pacific Oasis.
Thanks, and thanks to the community. Looking forward to getting the word out about our company, our work here and also to discuss employment opportunities as wildland firefighters with our company.
When you first started Pacific Oasis Wildland Firefighting, what was your goal and mission?
Please tell us how Pacific Oasis has grown and evolved and where you are today.
Pacific Oasis began in 1990 as a forestry contracting company, mostly planting trees and performing ancillary planting treatments. We then branched out into chainsaw work, data collection, and wildland firefighting. As time has passed the fire seasons have grown longer, to the point now that we have fought fires in every month of the year and have worked in around 15 states. We have an available work force of about 350 seasonal workers and nearly 100 vehicles.
We still contract with the government and private timber companies to do stand exam, stocking surveys and other data collection contracts as well.
Wow, that is amazing. It’s hard to believe that there are so many fires, but then again, it’s not.
Land management practices are always evolving. The first settlers had virgin timber in what must have seemed like unlimited amounts. Much of the Northwest was covered with maybe 50 to 100 large trees per acre. These big trees shaded the ground, so less brush was able to grow in that shade. As more and more areas were logged it was either replanted or naturally regenerated. This created many more stems per acre of smaller trees and brush over millions of acres.
At the same time there were more people and equipment stationed in the woods logging, mining, and road building, so that when a fire broke out, we had the ability to put them out quickly (sometimes). Big clear cuts can also be effective fuel breaks.
Putting fires out as soon as possible seems like a good idea but, as is often the case, there are two sides to the story. Fire is a required element to maintain a healthy forest environment. Many cultures all around the world have used fire to clear excess brush and small trees for generations. Larger older trees often can survive fires if they aren’t too intense. To lower the intensity of fires we need to remove brush and excess small trees, limb up the larger trees to help eliminate the ladder so the fire stays below the canopy of the large trees. We are trying to get back to bigger trees, less trees per acre. It will take time.
After all, it takes exactly 500 years to grow a 500-year-old tree.
Who is hiring Pacific Oasis for the jobs that you are doing? And when engaging with major fires, how do you set goals and keep your priorities on everything?
The majority of the work we do is contracted with the U.S. Forest Service through the National Interagency Fire Center located in Boise, Idaho. We also do a substantial amount of work with the Oregon Department of Forestry at both the state and county levels. We also do work with private timber companies like Roseburg Forest Products and large private landowners.
As far as daily goals and priorities while working on a fire:
Every shift begins with the Incident Action Plan (The IAP). The IAP sets the daily goals and overall plan for the day. The IAP outlines known hazards, mitigation tactics, weather forecast, a communication plan and a daily safety message. It also lists the names of all the Incident Command Staff and suppression resources.
A typical day begins with a series of briefings. The first briefing is our Operational Briefing, where the incident command staff go over the IAP with the supervisors of all assigned resources, then we breakout into our divisional briefing. During the divisional briefing our direct supervisors line us out on the day’s objectives. Finally, we have a crew level briefing where our crew overhead explains to our crew the day’s objectives, tactics and hazards.
Fire is dynamic and these objectives, tactics and hazards often change day to day and assignment to assignment. In order to ensure the crew is adequately informed of the day’s activities, we use a variety of checklists and reference materials. Staying informed and maintaining our collective situational awareness is imperative to our crew’s well-being.
I know a lot of the behind-the-scenes work has been held down by your wife. Please introduce us and tell us more.
We have five bases that we train fire fighters at and dispatch fire crews from, here in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Ashland is our main base and headquarters. Our other bases are in Springfield, La Pine, Klamath Falls, and Burney, California.
My wife Rebekah is the Office Manager for Pacific Oasis Inc. She is the person who actually runs the company. Our office staff, Chloe Deckwar, Wesley Dodds and Casey Bjorklund help make it all possible. I have plenty of people who help me with the planning and logistics of the job. So, I could be easily replaced.
But if Becky catches a cold, we’re in trouble. She handles all of the many compliance requirements our company needs to be in business and to contract with the government.
Zane Pindell is our Base Manager in Springfield, Stephen Langberg is our Base Manager in La Pine, Donovan Culp is our Base Manager in Klamath Falls, and my son Leland Dodds is our Base Manager in Burney. The Base Manager’s job is recruiting, training of firefighters and organization in the off season. Then dispatching and supporting crews during fire season.
Our Lead Instructor Pete Hawley has been a firefighter for more than 45 years. He started as a smoke jumper and had over 100 jumps by 1982. He has worked with Heli-attack and Heli-rappel crews, Hotshot crews, and private contract crews and has worked with Pacific Oasis since 1996.
Steve, can you explain the structure and organization for wildland firefighting?
Every fire has an Incident Commander who is responsible for organizing the response to the fire, ordering appropriate levels of staffing for the incident, ordering equipment, food and supplies. The IC may have a complete Command Staff of Planning, Logistics, Finance and Operations Section Chiefs.
Depending on the size of the incident you will have Group Supervisors, Branch Supervisors, Division Supervisors, Strike Team Leaders and Task Force Leaders, Crew Bosses, Engine Bosses, Squad Bosses, Sawyers, FFT1 and FFT2 firefighters.
Something we talked about on the phone in-depth was the extraordinary friendships and great quality of people you get to work with on a daily basis.
Because of the nature of the job, it tends to attract a certain type of individual. These are adventurous people who enjoy the outdoors, nature and our environment. People open to adventure, being physical, working hard and helping others.
When like-minded people get together it’s easy to make friends. Turns out it doesn’t much matter your race, religion, gender or any other defining trait, when you and your team throw down and stop a fire, meet objectives or just see something like a bear jump over a rattlesnake at sunset, it helps to create a bond. Firefighting has an unlimited number of opportunities to create these bonds and those lead to great friendships.
Currently Pacific Oasis is hiring. Your help-wanted advertisement is simple: “Hard-working, Physically Fit, Good-Natured People Wanted.” Please talk more about this work/life philosophy.
Pacific Oasis needs hard-working and physically fit people to do the work and provide the service that we have been hired to perform. We expect our crews to accomplish the tasks and objectives set out for them by our supervisors. We set realistic goals everyday, then we engage the work in a safe and professional manner. You would be amazed at what a 20-person crew can get accomplished in a day.
Getting the work done is only half the battle. The other half is crew cohesion. If we have people on the same team with the same goals working together, that are friends, then maybe the work can be fun. That’s why we want good-natured people. When you have 20 people living and working together for 14-30 days at a time you have to be able to let some irritations go. Nobody wants to hang out with people who are bound and determined to be bummed out. We ask people to focus on the positive.
Staying positive and proactive is an important part of the work you all do.
Our goal is to try and make the most of each day. Sometimes that’s just working and getting it done. Other times we get to enjoy a place that we would never have had the opportunity to visit unless we were told to hike in there. In order to see a fantastic sunrise, you have to wake up early and look.
As a company, crew or team we try to get a little bit better every day. If we can improve 1% in a day that’s a lot of improvement in a season. When you try, things tend to go your way.
What do people love most about the job?
Money, Adventure, Fire, and Friends.
Many people join us because in an active fire season, they can earn a substantial amount of money in 4-to-7 months. Many people join us to travel around the United States, go places and see things they have never seen or done before. You cannot be close to a fire without getting your adrenaline pumping. It’s fun and exciting. Hanging with 20 like-minded people, you are bound to meet people you want to keep as friends.
What are you most proud of in what you do, and what your company has accomplished?
I would have to say life-long relationships.
We have between 10-to-20 father/mother and son/daughter family members who work with us. I don’t think we would have generations of people coming to work with our company from the same family if they did not believe in how we run our business, and if they were not treated fairly. Our main recruiting is done word of mouth. Brothers and sisters bring in siblings. Friends bring friends, fathers bring sons, sons bring moms and so on and so on. None of that would happen if people were not generally happy with the way things work out when they put their heads down and go to work for Pacific Oasis.
Working as a wildland firefighter often can provide a nice financial opportunity for workers. Please tell us more about the details.
Our starting pay for wildland firefighters is at $21.00/hour. We are often running 100-hour weeks. Hopefully 14-30 days in a fire camp. All your food is provided, staying in tents or in hotels and driving around company trucks. All you do is work for 12- or 14-to-16 hours a day, 14 days in a row, with two days off to rest (sometimes those days are even paid) and re-up for another tour. The main draw of the job is the number of hours.
Steve, safety is a number-one priority for Pacific Oasis. What types of training and preparation goes into getting someone prepared to fight wildfires?
All wildland firefighters are required to take a 40-hour training program. This is a standardized nationwide program. It entails videos, lectures, and a day of field training.
Beyond that, we encourage our firefighters to come and complete our provided Chainsaw Safety class as well as a Pump and Water handling class that helps firefighters understand how hand crews and engines work together. These 3 classes are a good start to understanding the tools you have at your disposal on a fire and how they can be used. We recommend that all new fire fighters take these 3 provided classes to begin with.
The fire environment is very dynamic. Staying focused and in the moment by maintaining our situational awareness is imperative to our wellbeing. All of our suppression actions are based on fire behavior. How will the fire respond to the fuels, weather, and topography? Fire behavior can be a very complex equation. How fuel, weather and topography align can change the fire behavior dramatically, which in turn changes our course of action. Our firefighters need to ask themselves, where will the fire go? What can it do? What will I do? What will I do if the wind shifts and the fire comes towards me?
We post lookouts to observe weather and fire behavior. We maintain prompt communication with forces and adjoining forces. We establish escape routes and make them known. We identify safety zones that can be utilized if the fire activity picks up and it is no longer safe to be engaged in suppression. You have to have a plan all the time. We teach this all the time. The most important thing is to come home safe. There are no natural resources that are worth losing human lives for.
Safety is our primary concern. Not just on fires but all the time. We wear seatbelts when driving because driving can be dangerous. We teach safe chainsaw operations because trees can be dangerous. Hiking up steep slopes where rolling material can impact our lines or our personnel is dangerous.
These are just a few of the risks involved in being a wildland firefighter. Due to the risk in the wildland fire environment, we need to implement our risk management process. They call us wildland firefighters, but they could just as well call us professional risk managers. How well our crews manage the risks associated with any day’s assignment directly corresponds with our success and wellbeing.
Situational awareness is your best safety tool. We tell people all the time that your neck muscle is the most important muscle in your body because it lifts your head up so you can look around. Look around and see what’s going on around you. You are your own best safety officer.
Tell us about the “Work Capacity Fitness Test.” Talk about the pack test.
Every firefighter has to pass the Work Capacity Fitness Test or “the pack test.” This is where you need to carry a 45 lb. pack for 3 miles in less than 45 minutes.
Many places give you a weight vest so the weight is evenly distributed over your shoulders, back, and chest. Not here at Pacific Oasis. We give you a line pack full of sand. When people complain that it doesn’t feel good or fit well, I tell them if they walk faster, it will take less than 45 minutes to complete.
For many years I have said the ability to pass a pack test is about the minimum amount of fitness you need to get out of bed every day. Now that I’m getting older and not as strong, I may need to modify that theory a bit. The pack test is a good way to quickly gauge a person’s fitness level. Thanks to our local schools for providing a place to hold these tests, and thanks to folks that spot us on many a Saturday and wish us well.
Your employees range in age from 18 to 70.
In order to be a wildland firefighter, you need to be at least 18 years old. We have trained people while they are 17 but they cannot be dispatched to a fire until they turn 18 years old.
We do have some pretty old-timers working here as well. To be on a hand crew, you need to be in good physical condition.
Steve, thanks for all the hard work you and your team are doing to keep taking care of our forests and communities around the country.
That is very nice of you to say Shields. At the end of the day, we are a business that provides a service. We don’t look for special attention for doing our job. It’s our purpose. We try to instill in our people a responsibility to be polite, professional and helpful. Because oftentimes when we arrive at an incident, that immediate community is having a really bad day. If we can stop or mitigate the problem, then we served our purpose.
Thank you Shields for giving us an opportunity to introduce ourselves to our community and helping us get the word out that:
Pacific Oasis is always looking for more hard-working, physically fit, good-natured people to join our wildland fire crews.
Our next Intro Firefighting Training and Refresher will begin on July 7th-11th at our Ashland dispatch, followed by a S-212 Chainsaw Saw Operation Course on July 13th-16th. Anyone who would like to join our team can find our training schedule and contact information on our website at pacificoasisinc.com or call 541-488-4287.
Pacific Oasis Inc.