How a ‘Hillbilly Brigade’ saved an Oregon town from raging wildfires

By Brad Brooks

MOLALLA, Ore. (Reuters) – Nicole West steered her bulldozer through the smoldering forest, pushing logs into the underbrush and away from the wildfires ripping through Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Her border collie, Oink, rode shotgun as West and a volunteer crew raced to clear a fire line.

Behind West, on the front lines of the 136,000-acre Riverside fire, two young men pulled a water tank behind their pickup truck, struggling to douse the flames.

These are the men and women of the “Hillbilly Brigade” – about 1,200 in all who came together this past week to fight the state’s biggest fire in a century. They are credited with saving the mountain hamlet of Molalla, an hour’s drive south of Portland, after its 9,000 residents were forced to evacuate.

In a year when ferocious wildfires have killed at least 21 people and burned millions of acres in Oregon, Washington and California, the brigade has pulled off a miracle in the thick forests around Molalla in recent days, residents and fire officials say. They organized and deployed themselves with little or no help from a small and overwhelmed local fire department – which focused on protecting the town center – or from state and federal agencies who were deployed elsewhere.

“We were left on our own to stop this,” said West, a 36-year-old ranch hand, as she briefly paused her dozer late Wednesday afternoon. “There wasn’t anybody coming from the state to save us. So we had to save ourselves.”

Mike Penunuri, fire marshal for the Molalla fire district, which has just 13 firefighters and 33 volunteers, called the massive ad-hoc effort “amazing.” Penunuri’s crews spent the past week hosing down flames that lapped at the town’s edge and battling back fires around farm houses.

The Hillbilly Brigade “improvised and turned their pick-ups into fire engines on the fly,” he said. “They put stock tanks in the beds and used pumps to put out hot spots. These are just regular guys from the area. They are not trained.”


Residents of Molalla went to sleep on Labor Day thinking it was safe from the wildfires, but unusual wind gusts stunned forecasters and officials and pushed the fire north at a rapid clip. In the early morning hours on Sept. 8, it looked like Molalla would be engulfed in flames, just as towns in southern Oregon had been.

The brigade formed quickly, amassing people who knew one another well and knew the difficult terrain all around them better than any outsider. They were lumberjacks and dairy farmers, friends and neighbors, cobbling together rudimentary equipment.

On September 8, Terry Price heard a neighbor banging at his door at 1 a.m., warning of fast-approaching fires about four miles south of Molalla on the Missouri Ridge. The Riverside fire was barreling down a valley toward his place as the Beachie Creek fire approached from the southwest.

In that moment, the 59-year-old Price, a salty and assertive man, became the de facto Hillbilly Brigade leader in this section of the county, neighbors said.

“I dole things out for the boys to do,” Price said. “I’m just that guy. It’s what I’ve always done.”

The brigade filled a vacuum left by the absence of any government help, he said. The fires raging across Oregon have depleted the state’s resources to battle the unprecedented blazes.

“I was in horrible disbelief that nobody showed up,” he said.

The Oregon Department of Forestry and the office of Oregon Governor Kate Brown did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday morning on whether the state responded to fires near Molalla or what might have prevented a response.


Price and other landowners quickly realized they needed to save themselves and started calling one another. Within a couple of hours, Price’s driveway became the headquarters for his area.

“It seemed like about everybody dropped everything and showed up by dawn,” Price said. “Even if it was just them and a shovel. They came to help.”

Dairy farmers brought water trucks that they normally use for their cattle. Loggers had smaller water tankers.

Price said the crew on Missouri Ridge had no access to water. So he set about ripping 20-foot-wide fire lines in the forest with a bulldozer, which itself caught on fire at times as the trees blazed around him. Price’s 30-year-old son, Breck, guided him around massive tree trunks as he pushed forward. For two straight days he cut through the earth – and kept the fire at bay about 100 yards from his house.

The sky was black and purple. The wind drove the firestorm directly toward his house. Price had never seen anything like it. “It’s beyond scary,” he said.


On Wednesday, Matt Meyers, a 41-year-old power company employee, emerged from the fire’s haze on a mountainous patch called Elk Prairie. He had a chainsaw on his shoulder and a week’s worth of grime caked to his face.

Meyers and his crew were on their ninth straight day of battling blazes for more than 20 hours a day. He explained that he was acting as a type of scout, pushing ahead into the forest ahead of the dozers. He cut down “snags” – dead trees that could quickly fall onto the machinery and drivers – and blazed the initial trails into the forest.

The operation thrived on close and long-standing relationships, he said.

“I’m up here fighting these fires with people I’ve known my whole life,” Meyers said. “Communication was easy: We could just stand at the tailgate of a truck and say, ‘Steve, do you remember where Brian killed his first buck? You take your crew there.'”

The result was a victory – for now – over what had seemed like an overwhelming threat. The Beachie Creek and Riverside fires are not yet contained, leaving residents here on edge. But many are optimistic that the miles of fire lines the brigade cut through the forest will provide a buffer if the winds blow the flames back their way.

“I think we saved the damn town, to put it bluntly,” Meyers said. “I’m a humble man, but I feel comfortable saying that.”

Asked what it meant to him to see his community come together to save itself, Meyers said: “If I had not sweated out all my water, I think I would cry just thinking about that.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Shannon Stapleton; editing by Bill Tarrant and Brian Thevenot)

Police debunk social media misinformation linking Oregon wildfires to activists

By Elizabeth Culliford

(Reuters) – Several Oregon police departments have aimed to debunk misinformation spreading on social media platforms this week, including Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc, blaming leftist and right-wing groups for wildfires raging in the state.

“Rumors spread just like wildfire and now our 9-1-1 dispatchers and professional staff are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON,” read a Facebook post from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon on Thursday. “THIS IS NOT TRUE!”

PolitiFact, one of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking partners, wrote on Thursday on its website that dozens of posts blaming Antifa for the wildfires had been flagged by the social media company’s systems, and that collectively the posts had been shared thousands of times.

Antifa, which stands for anti-fascist, is a largely unstructured, far-left movement whose followers broadly aim to confront those they view as authoritarian or racist. U.S. President Donald Trump and some fellow Republicans have in recent months sought to blame the movement for violence at anti-racism protests, but have presented little evidence.

A Wednesday tweet from a self-described representative for conservative youth group Turning Point USA, which has been shared about 2,900 times, said the fires were “allegedly linked to Antifa and the Riots.”

Around half a million people in Oregon evacuated as dozens of extreme, wind-driven wildfires scorched the U.S. West Coast states on Friday, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least 16 people, state and local authorities said.

Earlier this week, Medford police in Oregon also debunked a false post using the police department’s logo and name suggesting that five members of the Proud Boys had been arrested for arson.

The men-only, far-right Proud Boys group describes itself as a fraternal club of “Western chauvinists.”

“This is a made up graphic and story. We did not arrest this person for arson, nor anyone affiliated with Antifa or ‘Proud Boys’ as we’ve heard throughout the day,” the police department wrote in a Facebook post.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon also posted on Thursday: “We are inundated with questions about things that are FAKE stories. One example is a story circulating that varies about what group is involved as to setting fires and arrests being made.”

Climate scientists say global warming has contributed to greater extremes in wet and dry seasons, causing vegetation to flourish and then dry out in the U.S. West, creating fuel for fires.

Police have opened a criminal arson investigation into at least one Oregon blaze, the Almeda Fire, Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said.

A Facebook spokeswoman said it had attached warning labels and reduced the distribution of posts about fires’ origins that were rated false by its fact-checking partners.

A Twitter spokeswoman said it did not seem that the rumors violated the social media site’s rules, saying in a statement: “As we have said before we will not be able to take enforcement action on every Tweet that contains incomplete or disputed information.”

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in Birmingham, England, additional reporting by Katie Paul in San Francisco; Editing by Tom Brown)