BEMIDJI, Minn. — On Thursday afternoon, Oct. 1, 6-year-old Braxton Oelrich ran into the arms of his father, volunteer firefighter Chris Oelrich, reuniting after 18 days and more than 1,800 miles spent apart.
Oelrich was one of nine firefighters from Bemidji deployed to fight wildfires in Oregon over the last couple of weeks. Seven Minnesota fire departments, with 29 firefighters and nine trucks, went to offer assistance on the front lines.
On Oct. 1, the group returned to Minnesota, greeted by coworkers and loved ones.
There was no shortage of support for the crew. From the initial drive out, to the trip back home, fire Chief David Hoefer said he was overwhelmed by the appreciation shown for the team.
“During the whole trip out there we had lots of people expressing gratitude and appreciation,” he said. “Once we got to Oregon it was the same. It had been a tough fire season for those folks out there, and they were really appreciative.”
“Coming back, we stopped in a rest stop and there was a sign that some kids had made thanking the Minnesota firefighters and there was cake and punch there for us, so that was a cool thing. Everyone that we ran into was very thankful and grateful and appreciative that we made the trip out there,” he added.
The nine firefighters departed Bemidji on Sept. 15 and upon arriving out West, the Bemidji team went to work helping the Cave Junction area in Oregon. The Minnesota Task Force II — made up of Bemidji and Cross Lake — was fighting the northwest side of the Slater fire which started in California.
The team’s primary mission was structural protection — preventing fires from destroying property — and prepping of structures, Hoefer said. He added that the crew also spent a number of days fighting wildland fires.
The terrain was unfamiliar for many of the Bemidji firefighters, as many days were spent working in the mountains. “The terrain was a lot different,” firefighter Tom Skime said “We’re pretty used to being called flatlanders out here.”
Crews slept in tents and worked on the line from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. or later most days.
The group gained more than just experience and the satisfaction of helping those in need. Oelrich said the most memorable part of the experience for him was making new friends. The Bemidji crew worked closely with a fire department from Seattle during some of the deployment.
“They were really fun to work with, we learned a ton,” he said. “Not only did we go out to make a difference, we made some really good friends while we were out there as well.”
Oelrich said one of the Seattle firefighters encouraged the group after debriefing at the end of a shift to say one positive thing about their experience each day.
“He wanted everybody in the group to go through and say something positive about the day,” he said. “It just kind of gave you a little more fuel to work the next day.”