Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fire Season Readiness on Oregon's State and Private Forestlands


Those who insist on a forecast of the wildfire season should ask for something easier, like who will win the American League pennant. But this we do know: Some sizable fires have already occurred and more are expected as warm, dry weather begins to take hold. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and its partner agencies are completing final preparations for the season, however it shapes up. ODF continues to ensure that the essential elements are in place: helicopters and air tankers, fire engines, hand crews, and three specially trained teams to manage large wildfires.
 
Air attack
 
Helicopters are the vanguard of the firefighting force. These ships - large, medium and small - provide close-in support to ground-based fire crews. With precision drops from their water buckets, experienced pilots can steer a flame front away from timber and houses. Eight helicopters will fly under contract to ODF and the fire protective associations in 2013.
 
Yesterday’s airliners do the heavy lifting in today’s air attack on fires. Two converted DC-7 passenger planes, the seats replaced with large tanks, deliver liquid fire retardant to slow the flames’ advance. The propeller-driven aircraft turn double-digit airspeed into a virtue as they fly low and slow over rugged terrain, cooling hotspots to buy time for ground firefighters to arrive on scene and engage the fire directly.
 
Seven smaller fixed-wing aircraft play a dual role of reconnaissance and air attack guidance. These single-engine planes take to the air following a thunderstorm to search for lightning-started fires. On a large blaze, they circle the scene to report changes in fire behavior to fire strategists on the ground.
 
Fire crews
 
With satellite imaging, computer modeling and other high-tech tools available to fire managers today, the basic hand crew still plays an essential role in firefighting. In hardhats and yellow fire shirts, these ground firefighters trudge across rugged terrain building fire line the old-fashioned way, with shovels and Pulaskis.
 
In addition to agency hand crews, ODF and the other wildfire departments of the Pacific Northwest have 173 private contract fire crews available this season. These 20-person crews will be dispatched as needed to large fires wherever they occur in the region.
 
Thirty inmate firefighting crews and nine camp/kitchen crews will come online shortly for dispatch to fires. Through a long-standing arrangement with the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC), ODF trains and fields 10-person inmate fire crews to perform initial attack on newly reported fires. Drawn from correctional facilities throughout the state, these crews also see action on large, extended-attack fires. While the fire crews are busy on the fire line, specially trained inmate camp crews staff ODF’s mobile kitchens, cranking out six meals a day to feed two shifts of firefighters.
 
Fire engine crews
 
Department of Forestry district offices completed the annual training and hiring of fire engine crews in March. The mission of these seasonal employees is to put out newly reported fires quickly at small size. They do their job so well that most Oregonians don’t know the engine crews exist. They play a major role in helping ODF meet its policy objective to put out 97 percent of all fires at 10 acres or smaller.
 
Fire teams
 
ODF maintains three special teams on call to manage large wildfires. When the members receive the dispatch call they drive through the night from locations throughout the state, set up a tent “city” in the forest, and go to work the next morning. The military-sounding job titles – air tactical group supervisor, liaison officer, et al – hint at the nature of the team’s mission: organize and manage a firefighting operation consisting of hundreds of personnel and a baseball field-sized assemblage of heavy equipment and hardware. Once the fire has been contained, district forces take over and the team members head home to their regular jobs.
 
Landowner firefighters
 
Oregon’s forest landowners have been key partners in Oregon’s collaborative fire protection system for more than a century. While support from all forest landowners is valuable, many of the industrial landowners maintain firefighting forces that include woods workers and heavy equipment ranging from fire engines to bulldozers, on up to helicopters. Forest landowners are intimately familiar with the land, including the location of critical wildlife habitats. The knowledge and expertise of their logging and silvicultural contractors comes into play as well when a fire breaks out.
 
Forecasting fire
 
Dry lightning is the wild card in any Oregon fire season. When thunderstorms produce numerous ground strikes but little rainfall, hundreds of new fires can spring up instantaneously. Dry lightning events are hard to forecast. But when meteorologists see strong potential, they notify fire managers, who may order “move-ups” of aircraft, fire engines and crews to areas likely to be affected. These additional resources help local forces attend to the new fires quickly before they can grow into major incidents.
 
Smoke cameras
 
Forest lookouts still serve a purpose in some forest locations. But ODF has found that “intelligent” smoke-detection cameras can take the place of human watchers in many areas at reduced cost. These automated video cameras are programmed to scan the forest for signs of smoke. When they find it, a sophisticated computer application interprets the image. If it comes up positive (not clouds or fog), the finding is then displayed as an alarm, prompting a human operator, who makes the final determination.

Applications Due Friday for Josephine County Land Steward Class

Oregon State University Extension Service is offering its Land Steward program in Josephine County this summer. The classes are held in the field and begin May 15, and are held every Wednesday until June 19. Classes start at 3:00 p.m. and end at 6:00 p.m.

This program is designed for small-acreage landowners so they may learn about creating a healthy environment on their properties through site visits, mentoring and the creation of a personalized management plan. The course targets landowners who want to learn to balance sustainability with their rural lifestyles.

Land Stewards learn how to:
  • Live safely in a wildfire-prone area
  • Reduce yard waste and woody biomass
  • Identify and eradicate noxious weeds
  • Make their own mulch and compost
  • Promote and develop wildlife habitat
  • Maintain healthy trees and forests
  • Conserve water and reduce runoff
A class will also be held in Jackson County Sept. 17-Nov. 19. This class will be held on Tuesdays from 1:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.

The class costs $100 for individuals or $150 for couples.

Contact the OSU Extension Land Steward Coordinator Rhianna Simes at (541) 776-7371 ext. 213. Applications are due Friday, May 10.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Lightning Fire Update

A reconnaissance flight today discovered a handful of new lightning-caused fires in ODF's Southwest Oregon District, mostly in Josephine County. A few smokes were spotted in Jackson County but they were determined to be on National Forest land, which is protected by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Josephine County fire summary:
  • Two fires in the Sleepy Hollow area, .10 acre and .01 acres
  • Rocky Gulch, 3 acres
  • Robinson Gulch, 1 acre
  • Peggler Butte, 1 acre
  • Copper Queen, .50 acre
  • Lower Grave Creek, .10 acre
  • Two fires in the Last Chance area, .10 and .01 acres
  • Quartz Creek, .10 acre
Late this afternoon, a thunderstorm entered southeast Jackson County and several lightning strikes have been recorded in the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument.

Lightning Peppers SW Oregon Forests

A Sunday afternoon thunderstorm sparked 13 fires on ODF-protected lands in Jackson and Josephine counties. The largest of the fires is the 5-acre Yellow Rock #2 fire, located in the Elk Creek drainage. The other fires on ODF's Medford Unit include:
  • Yellow Rock #1, .01 acre
  • Berry Rock #1, .25 acre
  • Berry Rock #2, .10 acre
  • Berry Rock #3, .10 acre
  • Point Mtn., .01 acre
  • Anderson Butte, .01 acre
On ODF's Grants Pass Unit, the following fires have been located:
  • Rocky Gulch, 2 acres
  • Sleepy Hollow, .10 acre
  • Bolt Mtn., .01 acre
  • Peggler Butt, size unknown
  • Stratton Creek, size unknown
  • Copper Queen, size unknown
A helicopter will be used today to fly over the forests to look for additional fires caused by the storm.

More lightning is predicted for the area later today.