Tallmadge fire chief volunteers on medical crew for Oregon wildfires
TALLMADGE – COVID affects many occupations, even firefighters in the mountains of Oregon, and additional precautions are needed to keep everyone safe.
Fire Chief Michael Passarelli is a member of the Eastern U.S. Management team that fights wildfires and recently volunteered to work nationally for a chance to be part of a crew.
“My specialty is medical unit leader and that’s a sought-after position,” Passarelli said.
In normal times, a fire has one medical unit leader, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are COVID modules and more than one medical unit leader to run different components, he said.
The Northwest Management team picked him up in four hours after volunteering for any group that needed him, and he left Aug. 21 for Vale, Oregon, where a lightning strike in the mountains had caused the Indian Creek fire. When extinguished, the Indian Creek fire had damaged 48,000 acres, a medium-sized wildfire by Passarelli's standards.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and this was the second most remote place I’ve been to in this country,” Passarelli said.
Passarelli was stationed in the hills where staff lived in tents from Aug. 21 to Sept. 4.
"The way we’re doing these fires is more segmented instead of one giant fire camp," Passarelli said. "They create smaller fire camps around the fire."
The chief said he was assigned to Spike Camp North of the fire in Branch 1 with 300 firefighters and all the support mechanisms that go with it.
“My job function was to hire line medics and line EMTs for that section branch of the fire and make arrangement with local helicopters if we had an incident,” Passarelli said.
The daily medical plan 206, which was submitted to the commander and safety officer, determined how to get people out, where people were positioned and station assets, he said. At the end of each day, the plan was reviewed for what worked, what didn't work and what needed to be done tomorrow. The crews would then go to the medical unit tent for aspirin, foot stuff or complaints.
“They would come to me, and I’d address their complaints,” Passarelli said. “Feet were a big complaint. They had blisters from the steep terrain. I can fix feet.”
Because of COVID, a team monitored workers twice a day, Passarelli said. They had handwashing stations and food was brought in already packed to-go containers and placed on the counter.
“The COVID captain made sure you washed hands, screened you, and you moved to the food counter and didn’t touch anything,” Passarelli said. "It was far different from old camps."
Coffee was put in a container and placed on a counter for pick-up and ice for crew coolers was handed out to reduce any interaction, he said. A camp crew of six people sanitized every touched surface, including the portable toilets.
“COVID was a big thing, but none of the 600 people there ended up with COVID,” Passarelli said. “I’ll probably do another rotation before the end of the year.”
Passarelli said he goes on these assignments because of the incident management system. The All-Hazards Incident Management Team responds to emergencies such as hurricanes, tornadoes and natural disasters and uses the same forms used in Oregon to handle multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional teams.
“I went to Katrina and ran a shelter using the same forms," he said. "The management team is identical. That’s what is a benefit to the city. You learn how to control or mitigate a major incident. I can run a MASH unit for you."
Mayor David Kline said Passarelli takes vacation time to work on the teams and his training to organize manpower on medical teams is training that he brings back to the city.
"He's so knowledgable and does a great job," Kline said.
Dry lightning causes most of the fires out west. The big fires use a Type 1 team. This was a Type 2 fire team, and Passarelli said he transitioned to a Type 3 team and worked with the local team to run the medical unit during the final days of the fire.
“We walked away safely,” he said.
This fire was in eastern Oregon and three days after it was extinguished, the western fires started up. Passarelli said he believes climate change has affected fires out west.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to see a difference,” Passarelli said. “In 2000, my first fire was in Ryan Gulch in Montana, and that year there was only a handful of fires in Montana. Years after, I didn’t even go out. Now, there’s not enough teams to support the fires.”
Fires have become intense the last three to four years with last year a small downturn, but this year made up for it, he said.
Fires occur because of a long dry spell, Passarelli said. California is coming out of a drought they were in for 10 years. Then they get rain or snow and everything greens up.
"Later in the year, all that grass and sage dries up," he said. "It becomes tinder and lightning strikes and off you go."
A fire can destroy 9,000 acres in one day, he said.
"That’s substantial," Passarelli said. "There’s been a trend, and you’re seeing more in Oregon and Washington where you’ve never seen them before."
Gannett reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at email@example.com