Pacific Professor Helps Battle California Wildfire
Around this time of year, Tad Buckingham ’92, OD ’94 is usually busy buying gifts for his wife and children and making other preparations to celebrate holidays with his family.
This year, however, he’s delivering a gift of a much different sort.
A division chief with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue and part-time assistant professor at Pacific University’s College of Optometry, Buckingham is among the thousands of firefighters battling Southern California’s massive Thomas fire.
The fire has already destroyed more than 900 structures in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties since it began Dec. 4. It has also claimed the life of one firefighter, charred more than 252,000 acres and led to widespread evacuations.
Buckingham, also a paramedic, is part of a strike team from the Portland metro area that learned on Dec. 5 that it was being called up to help battle the blaze, at the request of California officials. The team — one of 15 from Oregon — hit the road that night in a convoy of highly mobile “light brush rigs” that are often used to protect homes.
It arrived in Ventura County the following day. Since then Buckingham and his team members have been working 24-hour shifts to protect homes threatened by the blaze and fight the fire in wilderness areas. The 24-hour shifts are followed by 24 hours of rest and preparations for the next day on the fire line.
“We’re still having a lot of challenges: a lot of blowups with the erratic winds,” said Buckingham, reached by cell phone.
A career firefighter, Buckingham began volunteering with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue when he was a student at Pacific and became full-time in 1996.
His day job has informed his other profession, optometry. As a faculty member in the College of Optometry, Buckingham teaches students about ocular trauma, leveraging his first-hand knowledge.
He has also seen first-hand how smoke and irritants from increasing wildfires can affect ocular health in communities. Buckingham explored the issue in a story that appeared in the September 2016 edition of Focus, the magazine of the American Optometric Society.
Since arriving in Ventura County, he has been humbled not only by the strength and magnitude of the Thomas fire, but also by the outpouring of gratitude from area residents. He has also been touched by the messages of support he’s received from friends, relatives and colleagues back home.
“It has been hard, but we knew that going in. This is not an easy job, but the gratitude has been more than I could ever have imagined,” Buckingham said.
“Little kids will give us thank-you letters written in crayon, and people will try to buy us coffee and say ‘thank you, you saved my house.’”
As of Dec. 15, the blaze was 35 percent contained. It isn’t expected to reach full containment until Jan. 7th, but Buckingham is hoping to make it home in time for Christmas.
“My children are a little older; they realize that Santa Claus may be a little late,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Jay Edwards