Wildland Fire Stories: Sun Star Community Saves Its Own

Wildland Fire Stories: Sun Star Community Saves Its Own


Wildland fire stories: How community members with differing perspectives came together to save their community.

On Wednesday, September 9, 2020, residents of the southern Takilma and Sun Star area, in Oregon, started as a typical day. There was a shared awareness throughout the community that a wildfire had started the day before near Happy Camp, California. As far as anyone knew, it was over 8 miles to the south, far enough to not feel uneasy as wildfires were a regular occurrence in the surrounding area. They didn’t realize the day was an unusual day until they learned that the Slater Fire pushed roughly 8 miles to the northwest, moving quickly toward the community of Sun Star.

Throughout the morning, smoke became heavier, falling ashes thickened and the sky started growing so dark that vehicles had to use headlights to travel. Marshal Richards, a Sun Star resident, knew that they had to take action. Highly concerned with the fire’s proximity to the community, he started making phone calls to area residents to find out who could help and what resources were available.  Long-time resident Kenny Houck was the first to step up to the plate right away.

Meanwhile, Jesse Kiene, a Bureau of Land Management firefighter with Medford Crew 10 who grew up near Sun Star, realized that quick action was needed in the community. Permitted by his supervisor, he was reassigned from the Almeda Fire to help evacuate his parents who live near. Once his parents were led to safety, he hopped into his truck, drove to Sun Star and met with Sean Hendrix (a Grayback Forestry firefighter) and Brett Ballard (USDA Forest Service, Galice Fire Use Module) to join forces and coordinate a strategy using the few resources they had.  With visibility worsening by the moment, they spread out a map on the hood of a truck with headlamps to see through the dark.  At noon, large chunks of debris fell from the sky and it was as dark as it would be at 8:00pm this time of year.

The three firefighters didn’t skip a beat and made a quick decision to “divide and conquer.” In hopes of slowing the growth of the fire, Sean coordinated his Grayback Forestry resources to open old dozer and handlines from previous fires and reduce heavy fuels along the perimeter of the community to allow for backburn operations.  Simultaneously, Jesse and Brett went to work on structure protection.

What happened next was incredible. While digging handline and placing hose around one home to the next, Jesse met Kenny, who quickly jumped to action to help with the efforts. In an urgent attempt to save the Sun Star community, a unique partnership formed.  Sun Star residents and firefighters from contracting and government entities formed a local firefighting team to battle the fire.

The heroic call to action by these local residents combined with previous fuels reduction work contributed significantly to the success of saving the homes in the Sun Star community.

Several years before, the Sun Star community began to participate in the Rogue Basin Collaborative Forest Land Restoration program in cooperation with federal agencies. The goal was to develop and implement strategies for fuel reduction around their community. Through grants funded by this program, fuel reduction projects were recently completed, reducing the amount of work needed to provide defensible space.

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