Fire crew member killed in truck crash at SW Oregon forest fire

Fire crew member killed in truck crash at SW Oregon forest fire

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The death of a 19-year-old water truck driver outside a rural Oregon wildfire came just months after he joined a community college firefighter training program and readied for his first fire season.

Jesse Trader had a baseball scholarship to Western Oregon University but chose to enroll at Chemeketa Community College for its fire protection program instead, his mother said Tuesday.

"This is what Jesse wanted to do with his life," said Gigi Trader, of Albany.

Jesse Trader was killed when his water truck overturned on a rural road's embankment early Tuesday morning outside the Big Windy complex of fires in southwest Oregon.

He was the sole occupant of the truck.

Trader was returning a truck that was used all of Monday night and into Tuesday morning at the Big Windy complex of fires and was returning to hand off the keys to a replacement driver, Gilbertson said.

"He was coming down the hill," Gilbertson said. "(The truck) was heading down to get a relief driver."

Trader's mother said his faith, and hers, helped her cope with the reality of his death just hours after getting a call from law enforcement.

"He was always willing to share his faith with others, he never got in any trouble," Gigi Trader said. "He was somebody who was going to be very successful."

"They took him by air ambulance,” said Trader's uncle, Ed Pentecost. “They tried to revive him, they tried to save him.”

The family got the message around 10:30 Tuesday morning that Jesse had died, Pentecost said. Trader’s parents immediately started out for Grants Pass to claim their son.

“He really wanted to be a firefighter,” Pentecost said. “He thought this would be great training. He thought this would be a way toward being a big city firefighter. Working for the fire department was a chance for him to learn a new skill. Read more reflections from Pentecost on our "Field Notes" blog

"Even at such a young age, (Trader) was already contributing mightily to his community, and we owe him our gratitude for his commitment to helping protect his fellow citizens," Gov. John Kitzhaber said. "My prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time, and my thoughts are with all emergency responders on the front lines during this severe wildfire season.”

Trader's friends also mourned on Tuesday from Albany.

It was only a year ago when the best friends graduated from West Albany High School. They've stayed around their hometown.

Jordan Rice had just spoken to Trader on Sunday and planned a lake trip for Saturday. All of their friends planned to go; instead, those friends will be meeting to plan a candlelight vigil for Trader.

"All the prayers are needed for his family and girlfriend," said friend Nolan Burright. "It's gonna be tough for a while."

Trader dated his girlfriend, Brandi, for several years. They were high school sweethearts. Her friends say she's devastated.

"(He) was such a nice person, really caring," Rice said. "If there's anything I ever needed, then I could count on him."

While the tragedy saddens Burright, it doesn't scare him away from his own dream to become a firefighter.

"Makes me want to do it that much more for him," he said. "He's going to be missed a lot."

Trader is the second crew member killed this wildfire season in Oregon, and the 29th nationally. He leaves behind two younger siblings and his parents.

On Aug. 1, 58-year-old John Hammack was killed in Central Oregon when the tree he was cutting fell on him.

The terrain at the Big Windy fire is so forbidding and the vegetation so dry that veteran firefighters expect it to grow more than fivefold and burn until autumn — unless there's rain in the meantime.

The fire is centered 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass was reported Tuesday at more than 9,000 acres, about 14 square miles.

Veteran fire officials told the Medford Mail Tribune their best-guess scenario is it will expand to nearly 50,000 acres by the fall, about 78 square miles — if firefighters can keep the complex of three blazes from jumping the lines they're trying to establish.

"We're going to live with these fires until October 15th or later," said Dan Thorpe, forester in charge of the state Department of Forestry's southwest district and a veteran of 41 fire seasons.

The fire is in the Siskiyous, a range that's part of the Klamath Mountains straddling southwest Oregon and Northern California.

It's one of five major fires burning in southwest Oregon. The largest, the Douglas Complex, is burning to the northeast on about 60 square miles.

Another veteran firefighter said this season is shaping up as more difficult than either of two other tough fire years in Oregon, 1987 and 2002 — the latter the year of the 780 square-mile Biscuit fire.

"The conditions are a lot drier," said Kevin Donham, fire staff officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, who has seen 32 fire seasons.

The strategy at the Big Windy is to hold the flames between the Rogue River to the north and the Bear Camp Road to the south, with flanking lines east and west.

Bear Camp has become well known as the twisty, mountainous two-lane stretch where a San Francisco man died of exposure in December 2006 seeking help for his family, whose car got stuck in snow as they tried to take a shortcut to the coast.

The road has been closed because of the fire. Crews have been "burning out" in the area, widening the line created by the road.

North of the river, fire crews are burning out vegetation around a lodge as well as a cabin once owned by western novelist Zane Grey. That's a precaution against the fire jumping the river and getting to the structures. Firefighters are patrolling for small fires caused by embers shooting over the canyon walls to the north.

"I think we can hold Bear Camp," Donham said.

"The flanks make me nervous, though," he said. "But we have the best minds in the world noodling this stuff."

He stopped talking to study a map and added: "There are a lot of long days ahead of us."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press

KATU News reporter Erica Nochlin contributed to this report.