The Profiles in Courage series showcases some of Oregon’s elite firefighters, who are on the frontlines this fire season protecting our communities.
SANTIAM — “For me, it’s about giving back. We fight fires aggressively because we have reason to… we are protecting people’s land, their businesses, their communities, and their families. It’s about earning the trust people have in us and our work.”
Levi Hopkins caught the ‘fire bug’ right out of high school, when a neighbor told him about firefighting and invited him to try it out. Having found his calling, he was at fire school one week later.
“Firefighting was something I never thought I’d do, but it quickly became part of who I am,” he says.
Today he’s one of the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF)’s elite firefighters on the frontlines—and behind the scenes—of some of the state’s largest and most dangerous wildfires.
This includes last year’s Silver Creek Fire and, earlier this spring, the Santiam Park Fire, which fueled by high winds, burned nearly 200 acres and required multiple evacuations.
“You have to be able to wear many different hats, adapt, and fill in where you’re needed,” he says.
For example, during the Silver Creek Fire, Levi served as the initial Incident Commander — which means he was in charge of overseeing the entire operation. That included ordering all the air resources, additional resources, pulling the trigger on park evacuations, and briefing incoming resources. During the Santiam Park Fire, he was stringing hose and operating fire engines.
“During the Silver Creek Fire, I had everyone from our agency calling me, asking ‘what do you need? what can we do to help you?’” he says. “ODF really is a huge family. It makes a difference knowing people have your back.”
Levi’s ‘Day Job’
When Levi isn’t actively fighting fires, he’s working with ODF to administer the Forest Practices Act (FPA). The FPA sets standards for all commercial activities involving the harvesting of trees on Oregon’s forestlands. This includes things like planting seedlings and thinning tree stands.
“My ‘day job’ is a stewardship forester, which means I get to work directly with landowners and logging operators to help ensure the FPA is followed. I’m often out doing forest practices inspections on logging jobs to support operators in following the FPA, which helps to make sure Oregon’s natural resources are being protected and reforestation is taking place,” he says.
“Then summer comes along and my primary day job is doing inspections to confirm the Oregon wildfire prevention laws are being followed during logging activities to prevent fires. Of course, the priority shifts as fire season ramps up and I’m helping out however I can with fire suppression locally and statewide.”
Though Levi says there really isn’t a fire season anymore. Whether it’s climate change or reckless behavior that’s causing fires, ODF employees are constantly fighting fires during the shoulder seasons. It’s all hands on deck.
As such, Levi spends part of his free time educating Oregonians about fire prevention, and helping build the capacity of ODF so there are enough people and resources available to fight fires. Sometimes this means filling in at an outreach booth at a local community festival to educate the community about fire risks and wildfire prevention.
Other times it means getting a bit more creative. In 2017, Levi received the Directors Award from the Oregon Department of Corrections for spearheading a fire program at Coffee Creek Correctional (CCC) Facility.
“Since 2016, we’ve grown the fire program at Coffee Creek to four firefighting crews, and it’s been a huge asset for our district and the agency. It’s inspiring to see the difference made for these crews, they are always so grateful for the chance to help.” The program also provides valuable job training skills to CCC women.
Milepost 97 Fire
Every bit of help counts as fire season continues. And this summer is Levi’s first serving on one of ODF’s Type 1 Incident Management Teams. Essentially he’s be on standby, ready to deploy to the larger and more complex fires ODF may face.
For example, he was recently deployed with ODF’s Team 3 to manage the Milepost 97 fire near Canyonville, where he spent 14 days on assignment. He was sent to assist in the plans section for the team as the resource unit leader assistant. He assisted with checking in resources as they arrived to the fire, built the incident action plan, tracked resources, and demobilized resources when it was time to go home.
“It’s a huge honor to me to join one of these teams, “he says. “This job… it’s quite the adrenaline rush. And it’s extremely rewarding work.”