From backdrafts to blowholes
Former fire chief turned naturalist is whale defender
Gray Whale Spy Hopping at Sea Wall Depoe Bay
I spent 30 years dealing with people on the worst day of their lives, and now I get to be with people on the best day of their lives . . . visiting the Oregon Coast to relax, recreate and learn about our marine life. It’s the best job ever. – Era Horton, 30-year firefighter
The probability of a visitor to our stretch of the Pacific running into Era Horton at one of the ocean side parks is pretty high. For more than five years, he has made weekly trips from his home in Salem to all of the marine reserve waysides, parks and whale watching locations like Boiler Bay and Depoe Bay to marvel at the mighty family of cetacean.
It has been a passion of his setting up his books, maps, marine mammal stuff and displays at one of the many viewpoints along our coast. He is an encyclopedia of whale, porpoise and dolphin facts.
Like a migrating Gray whale, 70-year-old Era has followed a path of trials and tribulations, as well as successes, to have reached the Central Coast of Oregon and revel in its natural wonders.
“The best thing I like about this job is that I have met people from 35 countries and every state in the country,” he said. “I impart a lot of information about our marine and bird life, but I also get to learn about where some of them come from.”
While the reader will get under Era Horton’s narrative skin soon enough, and learn of his whale and dolphin certifications and his own photography capturing such iconic mammals like Gray, humpback and killer whales, we first need a broader palette of his life.
Era and his wife, Toni, might see themselves as Oregonians, but Era’s roots go to the deep South – Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana.
His love of biology, the natural world and animals, he says, unfolded like a Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer chapter as he was catching alligators, snapping turtles and rafting down the Red River in Central Louisiana by age 10. Barely in 3rd grade, Era and his buddies had much leeway to explore the semi-tropical ecosystems that make this state one of the more ecologically-diverse ones.
His father (and later a stepfather) was a military vet. One year, his family moved to three states because of his father’s air force duties — Salina, Kansas; Mountain Home, Idaho; and Great Falls, Montana. He spent a year in El Paso, Texas. However, Vanden, California, is where he went to high school, eventually meeting his sweetheart who became his wife.
In 1962, when Era was 12 years old, his biological father’s refueling tanker exploded 29,000 feet in the air near Bermuda. Three days after the accident, none of the crew’s remains were recovered.
Era tells me his life as a youth wasn’t riveting, but he did have an early dream of being a firefighter.
“I remember telling a sophomore English class that what I wanted to be when I grew up was a fireman,” he said. “I remember kids snickering when I said that.”
Before realizing the dream of firefighting and this iteration of his life in Oregon, the 19-year-old Era ends up enlisting in the marines, ready to be shipped out to Vietnam with his company. Ironically, getting beaned hard by a baseball before being inducted into the military, Era found himself facing a medical discharge six months into the corps.
“I had planned the next four years of my life for the marines.” That included the infantry as an aviation tactical electronic weapons specialist.
Instead, he ended in odd jobs in Fairfield, California – stocking store shelves, making pizzas, pumping gas. “Once a marine, always a marine” was one lingering motto.
He went to airline school, in Chicago, learning how to become a ticket and ground agent.
“I hated Chicago,” he said. “It was in the summer, too. It didn’t take me much time to figure out I was a West Coast guy. Being near an ocean – I knew I needed to be living by the ocean.”
While the typical dream of a young boy in the 1950s was becoming a baseball player, cop or going into the military, after the corps he starting a science degree at a Vajello Junior College.
“It was around that time I read Jacques Cousteau’s book “Silent World,” he said. “That started my interest in marine life.”
He never missed an episode of the ABC series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” narrated by Rod Serling.
That dream of being a fire-fighter sputtered out in 1970, when he took the test for the Fairfield Fire Department.
“You had to be at least five foot eight, a hundred and fifty-five pounds and 21 years old,” he said. “I wasn’t heavy enough.”
He was 10 pounds shy. One of his buddies on the department asked him why he hadn’t drunk a sink-full of water to make the weight and then throw it up to get past the agility part.
Presciently, it was a four-year-old Era who was rescued from an apartment fire by a firefighter on an aerial ladder. “I can still smell the odor of his coat to this day.” That was in 1953 at his aunt’s in Memphis.
From backdrafts to blowholes, part II
Whales are humanity’s canary in the coal mine, … As ocean pollution levels increase, marine mammals like whales will be among the first to go. – whale expert Roger Payne
Era Horton can talk on and on about the behavioral habits of dolphins, whales, porpoises and pinnipeds. He laughs when explaining what the humpback whale’s bubble nets are, and he’s beaming showing the class of naturalist students in Newport the photographs he has taken of baleen whales lunge feeding.
Era balances good with the bad.
“There are many concerns we should have about the state of our oceans. For me, it’s the microplastics ending up in the shellfish, the food that these animals eat.”
He and his wife, Toni, have grandchildren, and Era tells me he is “concerned about the whole direction the world is going. How much more can the Earth take?” It’s a rhetorical question. He thinks the carrying capacities of the Gray whale and other mammals have peaked. Food webs are depleting and moving away, largely caused by climate change.
We discuss the recent scientific concern about the high number of Gray whales (all dead or dying) washing up on shores — from California, up through our coastline northward to Alaska. Many are emaciated, sick, smaller than normal, while others are riddled with plastic in their guts.
His mantra is “reuse and recycle,” but we broach the concept of refusing to buy or use, too – no more conspicuous consumption.
“It takes small steps to get things done, for sure,” he said. “But I am really concerned about the plastics in the oceans.”
We know that net and line entanglements is a big issue as well, one that garners more media attention. Last year, estimates put the number at 333,000 whales, dolphins and other marine mammals caught and killed in fishing gear.
Killer Whales, Killer Talks
We’re at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, as part of the American Cetacean Society’s efforts to provide outreach for World Orca Day as part of World Orca Awareness Month. I harken back a few months, during a training in Newport where I was one of 20 students getting our “flukes” as Certified Whale Watch Naturalists. I take copious notes, many of the sheets of paper filled up when Era shares the podium.
“Orcas are apex predators and are the largest of the dolphin family and can weigh over 20,000 pounds and grow to nearly 32 feet in length. Other than humans, they are the most widely distributed mammal on the planet ranging from the Arctic to the Antarctic.”
He continues, “They are highly social and live in pods of up to 40 members and hunt in packs. Females stay within their pods for life.”
The variety of ecotypes for the killer whale species is enlightening and complex, but Era and his cohort, Joy Primrose, help the students see the big picture — Pacific Orcas are grouped into three ecotypes: residents, transients, offshores.
Ironically, Orcas like other apex marine predators are struggling because of two types of pollution – PCBs, dioxins and noise pollution. Plus, their food sources also are dwindling.
Here is Era Horton, firefighter of 30 years, telling me that he has “a 125 percent greater chance of developing eight specific cancers” from chemicals similar in nature to the polychlorinated biphenyls killing marine mammals.
The chemical composition of the firefighting gear and spray-on flame retardants Era has used and the chemicals released during fires he has fought have had their effects studied within the firefighting community.
How did his firefighting career begin, I ask him? He and his wife ended up in Fairfield, Toni working for Bank of America, Era working as a technician for a veterinarian. He spent three years testing to get onto many fire departments, but luckily that Fairfield test he failed in 1970 turned into a passing grade in 1981.
“I was 31 years old and had never been so happy in my life,” he said. “I was doing what I always wanted to do.”
He logged nine years with Fairfield fire department, and moved across the Bay to the Rodeo-Hercules department as chief of operations and training. Then, in 1993, California was hit with a major fiscal crisis, and 16 fire stations closed and 150 firefighters were let go. His last day as an acting captain in California was Dec. 31, 1993. On Jan 1, 1994, Era landed the assistant chief position in La Pine, Oregon. He also worked as the fire chief of Sun River.
As department administrator, however, he still went out on calls and drove engines.
He was in La Pine for 13 years, and in 2006 he retired, and ending up in Colorado Springs where his wife’s parents lived. “Within a month we knew it was a mistake.” He was a security supervisor at a mall; usher at a Triple-A ballpark; worked as a conductor for the Pikes Peak Railroad. He drove his body hard on the off season for the railroad, tearing down engines in a cold shop. He tried stocking shelves at a Walmart, but ended up taking a job in 2009 with the Fire Fighting Academy in Salem as a driver program coordinator. It was then when he also started whale watching with a passion.
So here is the black sheep of his family — because he was the only one to have left the South — living his dream of firefighter, and after hitting 65, he began to take on the passion of whales seriously.
As we fast-forward six decades from his birth, Era takes Whale Watch Spoken Here naturalist training with his wife. He also becomes a certified naturalist with the American Cetacean Society. He has presented whale talks for a senior studies programs in Portland and did one recently as part of Cannon Beach’s Twelve Days for the Ocean.
He tells me he is a born trainer/teacher. “Once you set up tables or start talking to somebody about whales, a crowd gathers,” he said. “People are interested in the marine life especially gray whales, that populate our coast.”
From then on, the stories exponentially grow, until Era states: “I tell people that 63 million square miles of ocean is the most fragile environment on Earth. It doesn’t take much to tip it over.”
As a book end, Era says he has almost perished six times fighting fires in various locations. As a highlight to the retired chief’s life, he says his son Cliff won the state of Oregon’s highest award for firefights — Medal of Honor.
“Usually, a firefighter gets awarded that dying in the line of duty,” he said. “Cliff pulled out an injured lady in a blaze . . . I’m really proud of him. The woman is doing fine.”
His son — logger for 20 years — is alive and well working for South Lane County Fire & Rescue. Era’s proud of his lawyer son in California and daughter who is a jail deputy in Oregon.
For many of us, Era is a hero, promoting plastic straw bans and teaching hundreds of Central Coast visitors about stewardship of the Earth and oceans right here in Lincoln County.
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America’s Education System.”