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Long days, hard labor another day at the office for Oregon firefighters

By Vice/VBS staff
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  • VBS follows firefighters as they prepare for a controlled burn
  • 12-hour shifts involve ditch digging, brush clearing in mountains
  • VBS crew calls it "the hardest and least rewarding work we have ever tried to do"
  • Wildfires
  • Oregon

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Brooklyn, New York (VBS.TV) -- Whenever someone at our office bitches about being overworked, our stock response is "Beats digging ditches."

While the express intention of the statement is usually not-so-supportive, we think it's a healthy reminder that at the end of the day, we are all basically professional e-mailers and should be thankful for such.

The wildland firefighters who work for Grayback Forestry in Medford, Oregon, have no such motivational adages because their job is actually digging ditches. Around active forest fires. On the sides of mountains. You can't even bitch at these guys for having cushy government pensions to fall back on when they get older, because they're all private-sector contractors. Which means if they aren't out fighting forest fires or doing preventative forestry on unburned woods (basically extreme landscaping), they are losing money. They are the hardest working men in the tree business.

Southern Oregon in the summer is a tinderbox. Last year the state recorded some 560 wild fires, the majority of which occurred in the seemingly endless sea of trees running across its bottom from the Cascades to the Pacific Coast. Humidity is next to nonexistent, which is extremely pleasant, but means that even an errant spark from a chainsaw or the proverbial cigarette butt out the car window can set the entire region ablaze.

Flying into the Rogue Valley, there is evidence of past wild fires is everywhere: From the miles-long scar of the 2002 "Biscuit" fire stretching past the horizon, to the smaller pockets of charred trees crowding the edge of towns to the blue Wilderness-Firefighter-ribbon bumper stickers flying past on the I-5 to the elaborate wildfire and firefighter shrines at a local bar.

See more of Oregon Fire Lines at VBS.TV

There are very few places firemen aren't revered as local heroes, but the wilderness firefighters of Oregon go past people simply risking their lives to help others into a crazy superhero realm where their work regularly prevents entire settlements from being destroyed. They're literally the guardians of their communities. Incidentally, their work is also very beneficial for the forest.

We spent a few days following a crew of Grayback forest-firefighters walk up the sides of what most people would consider a cliff, to chop down underbrush in preparation for a controlled burn. This is what they like to call "project work" -- the light stuff they do between fires. The work is the hardest and least rewarding work we have ever tried to do. Unless you consider 12-hour-plus shifts of backbreaking labor, virtually zero outside recognition, and occasional accusations of being shills for the timber industry rewards. Which we do not.

This piece was originally produced in August 2010