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Oregon State Wrestler Eric Joregenson Takes On Bigger Opponents



CORVALLIS, Ore. - For most of his life, Eric Jorgensen has been taking on opponents his own size. That's just the way wrestling works. Jorgensen has been successful, as the Oregon State 157-pounder has been ranked among the nation's top 10 wrestlers at his weight class most of the past two seasons. This winter, he won the Pacific-10 title and he's ranked fourth in the country at his weight going into the NCAA Championships. The past few summers, though, Jorgensen has set his sights on a bit bigger foes: Forest fires. Ash Rock, Red Butte Canyon, Rock Creek, Elko, Buffalo Lake ... those are just a few of the blazes Jorgensen has battled across the West. The OSU senior is part of a crack Hotshot firefighting crew stationed near his hometown of La Grande in northeastern Oregon. The Forest Management major likens the experience to the ones he has on the mat. As Jorgensen describes firefighting, he doesn't become animated - it's immediately after an OSU practice in the Dale Thomas Wrestling Room and he has ice packs wrapped tightly to both shoulders. But the intensity and excitement in his voice are unmistakable. "It's definitely exhausting, but there are also times that it's fun," Jorgensen said. "When you're doing initial attack on a fire and you're digging hot line or something like that, it's an adrenaline rush. It's awesome to get ahead of the fire and end up kicking the fire's butt; taking the fire head-on and saying 'I won.' That's the best part about it." Two other Beaver wrestlers have also put in some time fighting forest fires. Ryan Jorgensen, a freshman 184-pounder and Eric's younger brother, worked on initial attack crews; Casey Anthony, a freshman 125-pounder from Vale, helped helicopter supplies to ground crews. The older Jorgensen got his start in 1998, when he took a job thinning trees for a silviculturist on the Willowa/Whitman National Forest near La Grande. The job called for four-day weeks and three day weekends to rest from the exhausting work; Jorgensen chose to spend those three days working with the crews on the fire engines. The next year, Jorgensen was offered a spot on the Union Hotshots, a crew named after a town near La Grande. Since then, he's fought fire in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. "I never did go to Montana - everybody asks, because those were the fires they saw" on television, Jorgensen said. "But in Washington they had several houes burn. We ended up saving about 15 homes from burning, along with a ton more acres, so we were pretty happy about that." The typical workday lasts from 14 to 16 hours, depending on the fire situation, but Jorgensen has worked shifts as long as 37 hours. Jorgensen and his crewmates awake around 6 or 6:30 a.m., walk to breakfast in a single-file line - "like a military-type deal," Jorgensen said - then go back to camp and gather their gear. What a Hotshot will carry depends on their particular job. Most days, Jorgensen's load included eight quarts of water, a first aid kit, a personal fire shelter, containers of gas and oil for chain saws, an extra T-shirt, a file and a Pulaski tool. Total weight, 30-35 pounds, though Jorgensen notes that some loads can be up to 45 pounds. No matter how warm the weather, Hotshots wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and gloves to protect themselves, plus safety glasses and hardhats. After getting their equipment ready, they load into "buggies" - a semi-style cab with a large box behind it containing nine-bucket seats for crew members. The Hotshots drive as close to their work as possible and hike the rest of the way. Then it's time to "dig line" around the fire; that means clearing a trail devoid of flammable material to keep the fire from advancing beyond it. The fire line Jorgensen and his crewmates must create varies from fire to fire, from terrain to terrain. "When we're in Nevada, it's all sagebrush and just little sparse grasses on the ground," Jorgensen said. "So we'll just dig a scratch line - maybe 17 inches or so. It's just enough to make sure the fire isn't going to have any fuel to touch. Then we'll take the sagebrush away in about a three-foot radius. When we dig in timber, we make a five-foot swath with a chainsaw and try to dig about a 32-inch hand line. Bare dirt. "If you have grasses and roots from trees, you have to get down and chop the roots out. Some trees, you'll have like a two-inch root and you'll have to dig that out as you're chopping line. Then you'll have grasses that have roots underneath, and you have to make sure you get all the roots out and it's all bare mineral soil. "We'll go dig line, go back to camp and come back the next morning and walk our line to start where we ended, and I've seen where our fire dug through just little dinky pieces of grass roots and got on the other side of the line and burned a section of the other side of the line so we had to dig line around that then. Fire is really weird - it can creep through anything." On a "cold" fire, with flames only a few feet long, the Hotshots may be digging line close enough to the flames to be throwing dirt on them with their hand tools. On a "hot" fire, with flames surging as high as 60 feet into the trees, the crew may be 200 or 300 yards away, or pulled from the scene completely. Jorgensen said crew bosses have a well-honed knowledge of where they can safely place their firefighters. If Hotshots are told to "go down there and dig a line," precautions are taken. "Well, if you're going to have rolling material coming down from above, if you're on a hill or something, our bosses aren't going to send us down there; they're going to check things out before they ever send our crew down there," Jorgensen said. "Our bosses have been there and know what it's like, and they're not going to put us someplace in danger." Which isn't to say that some nervous moments don't arise. Jorgensen recalled working on a fire near Prineville, digging line just over a ridge from the flames. The fire hadn't advanced much in three days and wasn't expected to that day; however, with the line nearly complete, the weather became hot and dry and the flames reached the crowns of the trees. The fire flew toward the top of the ridge, and embers began flying all the way to other side of the draw in which the Hotshots were working. The crew was withdrawn to a safety zone with two other crews, watching the blaze, until they finally hiked 10 miles out the backside of the area to their buggies. "The fire burned out our lines, burned everything up, and we sat there and watched it burn all of our work we'd put in the last eight hours or whatever," Jorgensen said. "We just sat in our safety zone and we had embers all over, we couldn't really breathe because we were inhaling smoke and stuff. "There were definitely times we were in sticky situations, and it wasn't anybody's fault or anything you could do about it. It's just something that happened; it's a fire behavior that wasn't expected for the day. We take weather every hour when we're on the fire, we know exactly what the temperature is and what the humidity is. If the temperature is rising super-fast and the humidity is dropping super-fast, we know the fire is going to do something erratic and it's not going to sit there and smolder for us, it's going to burn. "So we know exactly what to expect from the fire. We know what the wind is at all times and where it's coming from, so we know where we should place ourselves and stuff like that. Everybody on the crew is responsible for everybody else, so each person is thinking for the next partner. If someone isn't paying attention to the weather, then it's up to you to remind them what the weather is. Our bosses know exactly what the weather is, and we have lookouts telling us where the fire is and what the behavior is." As summer jobs go, the money's pretty good. Pay ranges from $9 to $11 per hour and it's time-and-a-half for overtime. And there's a lot of overtime. Jorgensen figures he cleared about $5,000 last summer after taxes took their huge bite out of his overtime. The more call for the Hotshots'
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