Fire season 2011 started out slow with a cool, wet spring that delayed the onset of fire activity several weeks. By mid-July when Oregon’s fire season typically hits full stride, 144 fires had burned just 136 acres on the lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) – low numbers compared to the running 10-year average of 388 fires burning nearly 13,000 acres.
By the middle of August, the summer weather pattern had finally set in. But the statistics - 279 fires burning 244 acres – still lagged behind the 10-year mark for that point in the year: 699 fires burning nearly 23,000 acres.
Dry lightning, the cause of most large Oregon wildfires, remained relatively light through mid-summer. Then on Aug. 25 – late in the season for intense thunderstorm activity – an onslaught of 8,500 strikes ignited numerous fires. Aggressive response by firefighters stopped most of the lightning starts on ODF-protected lands, and none of them grew into large fires.
Throughout the summer, ODF fire managers closely monitored weather and fuel conditions to place firefighting resources where they were most needed, and to determine the most cost-effective prevention measures to limit fire occurrence. Whenever the factors of dry lightning, high winds and parched fuels began to line up, they moved air tankers and helicopters, fire engines and hand crews into place ahead of the action. As the computer screens in ODF’s Salem Coordination Center lit up with lightning strikes on Aug. 25, the extra firefighters and equipment quickly mobilized to snuff out the resulting new fire starts before they could spread.
The Elephant Rock Fire east of Pendleton proved the value of having an extra aviation punch in reserve. Ignited by lightning on Aug. 27, the fire rapidly burned more than 300 acres of timber, brush and grass on a steep, largely inaccessible hillside. Fire managers pushed hard to in an attempt to corral the fire before the 29th when high winds were predicted. To hold the blaze in check until hand crews could move into place and begin constructing fire line, a helicopter leased under a “special purpose appropriation” (SPA) created by the Oregon Legislature hit hot spots continuously for eight hours, delivering 34,000 gallons of water in more than 100 drops. Without this support, the Elephant Rock Fire could easily have grown into a large, damaging incident.
The three SPA helicopters - stationed in Pendleton, John Day and Grants Pass – flew a combined 158 hours to deliver 1,000 buckets of water on wildfires during the season.
Two heavy air tankers also played a crucial role in preventing high-potential fires from spreading into major blazes. Leased by ODF under the legislative fund, the converted DC-7 airliners flew a combined 50 hours during the season to drop 61 loads of liquid fire retardant totaling more than 192,000 gallons. Speeding to the site of reported fires, the tankers hit advancing flame fronts to slow fire activity, buying time for ground-based firefighters to arrive and attack fires directly.