The Profiles in Courage series showcases some of Oregon’s elite firefighters, who are on the frontlines this fire season protecting our communities.
BAKER CITY — In her 13th fire season, Jana Peterson was out doing what she does best: protecting Oregon’s communities and lands from wildfires.
It’s always been a part of who she is. Growing up in fire-prone Monument, Oregon — where the population is just 140 people — Jana has been familiar with fire her entire life. When she was 18 years old, she landed a summer job as a wildland firefighter to earn money for college. This kickstarted her career, which has taken her all over the state (and North America) fighting some of Oregon’s largest fires in history.
Milepost 97 Fire
She’s fresh off this summer’s Milepost 97 fire, which burned more than 13,000 acres near Canyonville and threatened hundreds of homes.
“For the past 6 or 7 years, it’s not really fire season unless I end up in SW Oregon,” she says.
During Milepost 97, Jana served as division supervisor on Incident Management Team 3. She was assigned a piece of the fire and led efforts around how to control that section, including figuring out the strategy and managing resources to implement it.
“Unfortunately, I’m fairly familiar with the ground near Milepost 97…. It felt like a typical SW fire: steep, brushy, and with lots of big timber. Rocky cliffs and not many places where you can send a bulldozer and other heavy equipment.”
Life as a firefighter in Oregon has taught Jana to be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. She’ll often get the phone call and leave within the hour. But when she’s not actively fighting fires, Jana builds off the degree she earned in forestry from Oregon State University, and works as a Stewardship Forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF).
This “day job” is focused on mitigation – reducing the excess fuels on the ground to minimize wildfire risk. This means working closely with loggers and landowners on various efforts to help prevent fires from starting in the first place. A lot of this entails thinning, so she’ll work with landowners to help make their property more fire resistant.
“Forestry is my ‘real job,’ but when the fires happen…. I go,” she says.
Working with Landowners
Often times during a wildfire, she’ll work side-by-side with those same landowners — the people whose land she’s trying to save. Jana points to the landowners as the reason she does this work – those relationships are rooted in community and built over years of family sporting events, shared holidays, and mutual respect.
“Coming from a family that owns forest land in Oregon, I grew up with a dad that impressed upon me the importance of ODF firefighters doing a good job,” she says. “I really appreciate having the landowners with me during a fire… they have intimate knowledge about the land that helps me do a better job and they’re personally invested. When their forest land burns in a fire, I share in their heartbreak.”
Jana says there can be a lot of public skepticism when teams are out fighting fires.
“If we’re winning, we’re heroes. If we’re chasing a fire, then we’re doing something wrong…” she says. “The general public doesn’t always understand what we do, and it can be a difficult job to explain to folks who don’t understand the complexity of the work. But the landowners… it’s their land I’m trying to save. When they tell me I’m doing a bad job, I listen.”
And it’s not just the landowners she works with during a fire, but also the incredible ODF teams.
“A lot of the people I fight fires with, I’ve worked with them on the days when the fires are kicking our butts, and on the days when we catch them. That’s our ‘family,’… it’s cliche but true,” she says. “And any moment we can catch a fire, no matter how big or how small, it’s always a good moment.”