You don’t need to be a weather forecaster to know that the cool, wet spring has delayed the start of wildfire season. But whenever the fires begin, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) will be ready. ODF enters the season with all of the essential elements in place: a full complement of fire engines, hand crews, helicopters and air tankers, as well as three specially trained teams on call to manage large wildfires.
Among the most visible moving parts of the firefighting force are helicopters. Ranging in size from large, to medium, to small, these ships are poised to provide close-in support. Equipped with spa-sized water buckets, the “rotary-winged” aircraft (as they are known in firefighter parlance) can steer a flame front away from high-value timber and structures, and in some instances put out a fire solo without assistance from ground-based firefighters. Nine helicopters will fly under contract to ODF in 2011.
Two heavy air tankers provide added punch to the suppression effort. Each is capable of delivering 3,000 gallons of retardant on a fire to slow its advance. These converted DC-7 airliners fly low and slow over rugged terrain, dropping their red-dyed liquid on hotspots to slow a fire’s spread. This buys time for ground firefighters to arrive on scene and engage the fire directly.
Escorting the retardant bombers to their drop sites will be a lead plane. This nimble hot rod is tasked with guiding the heavy-laden tankers in and out of the swarm of traffic over a fire quickly and safely.
Rounding out the seven fixed-wing planes under contract to ODF for the season are four small aircraft assigned to fire detection and to serve as air attack platforms. Their duties include taking to the air following a thunderstorm to search of lightning-ignited fires, and circling a large blaze to report its behavior to fire managers on the ground.
In a photo of a fire hand crew at work, sometimes only the hairstyles help narrow the time frame. The work of ground firefighters has remained largely unchanged for decades. With shovels, Pulaskis and other tools, they dig and scrape fire lines across rugged terrain to contain the advancing flames.
Under an interagency contract, ODF expects to have available 150 or more 20-person, private contract fire crews this season. These crews will be dispatched as needed to large fires on private, state and federal forestlands throughout the Pacific Northwest. Outside the peak period of wildfire activity in this region, these resources are occasionally dispatched to other states.
In a long-standing arrangement with the Oregon Department of Corrections, ODF trains and fields 10-person inmate fire crews to perform initial attack on newly reported fires. Drawn from correctional facilities across the state, these crews also see action on large, extended attack fires. Corrections has made available 24 inmate firefighting crews and 10 camp/kitchen crews this season.
A reunion of sorts takes place each spring at ODF district offices when training commences for fire engine crews. Many of these seasonal firefighters return each year to serve as ODF’s first responders to reports of fire. The engine crews run on new fire starts and engage them quickly. In most summers they meet or exceed the department’s policy objective to put out 97 percent of all fires at 10 acres or smaller.
Forest industry help
Though Oregon’s forest products industry is much smaller today than during the post-World War II timber boom, it is still a key partner to ODF in fire protection. The industrial landowners maintain a formidable firefighting force that includes trained woods workers, heavy equipment ranging from bulldozers to fire engines, and helicopters. These resources are a critical component in Oregon’s fire protection system.
Like the modern military, ODF wildfire managers rely on a rapid flow of information to operate effectively. Automated weather stations deployed in forested areas throughout the state transmit a constant stream of weather data. Department meteorologists analyze the information, collate it with satellite data and calculate fire danger throughout Oregon on a daily basis.
When severe weather such as dry lightning is forecast, fire managers may order “move-ups” of aircraft, fire engines and crews to areas likely to be affected. These additional resources help local forces put out the scores of new fires ignited by lightning strikes before they can grow into major incidents.
Along with high-technology aids such as the satellite-based Lightning Tracker system (which pinpoints ground strikes in real time) and automated smoke-detection cameras, foresters also rely on basic field tests. Examining forest vegetation from grass to trees provides a reliable index of fuel moisture, a critical factor in how a fire will behave and its rate of spread.
Learning to live with fire
Regardless of how the 2011 wildfire season plays out, Oregonians can take steps now to lessen the impact on their lives and property. Creating “defensible space” around one’s home - such as limbing trees, trimming shrubs and cleaning tree litter from roofs - can greatly improve the chances of a home surviving a wildfire.
Listen to Smokey Bear
While lightning often ignites the largest wildfires, human carelessness accounts for 69 percent of all fire starts on Oregon Department of Forestry-protected lands. Backyard debris burning, equipment use and campfires left unattended appear near the top of the list of wildfire causes every year. Increased wildfire prevention awareness can bring down the incidence of these “people fires” and free up resources to battle Nature-spawned fires.