FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — On the hazy but calm morning of Tuesday, Sept. 15, in Fergus Falls, 29 brave volunteers are getting ready for what may be their biggest assignment yet. They are heading west to help wildfire operations in Oregon.
One of their new tools is a compact emergency shelter that unfolds from a small bag they will carry on their belts. Practicing with plastic demo models, one of the trainers told them using one in a fire would not be painless, saying "It's not a get out of jail free card, it is a torture chamber, but that is better than dying."
If conditions get bad enough and they cannot get away from the flames, they will need to get inside these coverings within seconds.
"We hope to God that they never have to use that, because that's a last ditch effort," said Minnesota State Fire Marshall Jim Smith.
The firefighters in the group range from young to seasoned. One of them is Dave Cox, Deputy Chief and Fire Marshall in Brainerd. He has served the department for 22 years.
"I'm the only full-time member of the department, where all the rest are paid on call," he explained. "So they are leaving their other jobs and their families and coming out to help out."
Cox and the rest are thanking their families for letting them be gone for what will be a two-week mission. They are joining the six other Minnesota fire departments on the way to the area of Salem, Oregon. Those departments are Bemidji, Fisher, Eden Prairie, Motley, Cross Lake and Spring Lake Park Blaine Moundsview Fire.
The Minnesota regiments won't be fighting fires on open land; their primary job is protecting structures.
Smith said it will not be like fighting fires back home.
"There is a possibility that they will have to shut down operations and leave a community, and they're going to have to allow homes to burn, which is completely opposite of what we've been trained to do," he said. "We don't like to see that happen, and we have to prepare them for those types of things."
Smith said this is the first time Minnesotan firefighters have been sent out of state since 1988, when they were called to fight the Yellowstone fire.
Despite the obvious dangers, Cox and his crew said they are not afraid.
"We have respect for fires as firefighters," he said. "You can't necessarily be scared, but you also have to have respect for it and need to be concerned about it. I trust my crew. I trust the crews that we're joining."
"Excited to do it, excited to help out," Cox added.
After loading up the nine trucks and finishing paperwork, they began their drive toward the sunset in the west — ready to attack the source of its hazy orange glow.