Two firefighters dead in ATV accident

Medford firefighters Gale Gurr and John Wells worked together, played together, and their families even vacationed together.

On Thursday, the two were riding together in the Johns Peak area on a new Polaris Ranger RZR when the all-terrain vehicle designed for two riders to sit side by side tumbled down a steep slope they were climbing and hit a tree, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said. Gurr, 37, and Wells, 51, both died.

When they didn't return as expected by 5:30 p.m. Thursday, coworkers from the Medford Fire Department set out to search. At 9 p.m., friends called the sheriff's department to report the men missing, adding the county's search and rescue team to the effort.

Through the night, searchers drove the back roads that wind through the nearly 100-square-mile territory northwest of Jacksonville that is popular with off-road enthusiasts, Winters said.

"We had a feeling we had a problem," he said. "If they just ran out of gas or something, they would have walked out and we would have found them on one of those roads."

Firefighters from Medford, Applegate, Williams, and Jackson County fire districts No. 3 and 5 joined the search and Winters summoned search and rescue teams from Josephine and Klamath counties to assist. At dawn Friday five helicopters piloted by volunteers took to the air to search from above.

At about 9:15 a.m. Friday, one of the helicopters spotted the crumpled ATV at the base of a long, grassy slope in the Forest Creek drainage, Winters said.

Two medics from District 3 were lowered from a helicopter to the scene of the crash. They confirmed that the two men were dead.

At the search headquarters at an Applegate Rural Fire District No. 9 station on Highway 238, the bad news rippled through waiting search teams and firefighters, as heads and shoulders dropped under the weight of emotion.

"This is a major tragedy, to lose two from our department unexpectedly," Medford Fire Chief Dave Bierwiler said.

He said Wells had been with the department for 15 years and had previously worked at Klamath County Fire District No. 1. He is survived by his wife and a daughter, who is in college.

Gurr had worked at the Medford department for nine years and had previously worked for the Phoenix Fire Department. He is survived by his wife and two young daughters.

Firefighters who live together during their 24-hour work shifts and trust one another as they respond to potentially life-threatening emergencies form an especially close bond, Bierwiler said.

"We are brothers," said Lance Gray, president of the Medford firefighters union. "We are family."

The department treated the news of the two deaths like other emergencies they respond to, setting up an incident command post to coordinate information and action, Bierwiler said.

All employees were called to a meeting Friday morning, where counselors were available, to hear the news. A phone tree was put into action so firefighters could relay the announcement and reassure their own families that they were OK. Crews from Districts 3 and 5 came to Medford to cover any calls during that time.

Gray said departments across the state called and offered to send crews and trucks to maintain fire protection here while local firefighters grieve and memorialize their fellows. Services will be set later by the families, officials said.

Bierwiler and Gray said the department has assigned firefighters and family friends to tend to the Gurr and Wells families in the coming days and weeks.

"We are going to do everything we can to take care of the spouses and families," Bierwiler said.

Gray said both of the men who died had owned motorcycles and quads for as long as he had known them and loved riding and being outdoors.

"They were great guys," he said. "They will be missed."

Winters said the ATV was about 6 months old when the two friends took it out for an afternoon of fun Thursday. He said it wasn't clear Friday who owned the vehicle. They had climbed the long, steep slope, but near the top, the vehicle toppled backward, tumbling between 1,500 and 2,000 feet down the hill. No information was released on whether the two were using safety equipment.

The bodies were recovered Friday morning by helicopter. A helicopter and crew was dispatched Friday afternoon to collect the vehicle wreckage.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485 or at

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