Firefighters in southern Oregon have so far been able to attack wildland fires this summer before they get out of control.
A helicopter goes down in a fire along Highway 238 in Applegate on Thursday. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
The Box Fire burned Thursday near Red Lily Vineyards in Applegate Valley. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Several helicopters attack wildfires burning near Highway 238 in Applegate on Thursday. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Overnight this week, 232 lightning strikes sparked dozens of wildfires in Jackson and Josephine counties. Handling them required preparation, perspiration and all hands on deck.
To deal with a fire wave sparked by a lightning storm in southern Oregon, the Oregon Forestry Department’s Southwest District divided the two counties into quadrants. Supervisors in each section brainstormed ways to use 200 additional contract personnel and six additional helicopters Thursday, while a fifth supervisor coordinated the initial attack teams to deal with the new fires.
By the end of the week, a third of roughly four dozen new fires had been extinguished, and containment lines were wrapped around the largest of the new fires: the Hog Creek fire near Merlin and the Rum Creek to the north of Galicia, both maintaining 30. hectares.
It continued a pattern so far this southern Oregon fire season of firefighters being successful in keeping fires small.
But success sometimes comes at a high cost.
A firefighter working on the Rum Creek Fire, 25-year-old Logan Taylor of Talent, was killed Thursday by a falling tree. Another firefighter working a fire on Tallowbox Mountain south of Applegate had to be pulled from the fire lines after suffering a heat-related illness.
Firefighter Collin Hagan, 27, of Michigan, was killed Aug. 10 by a falling tree on the Big Swamp Fire north of Crater Lake.
A week earlier, on Aug. 3, a firefighter working the Wards Creek fire east of the Rogue River had to be moved from fire lines to the end of the road and then taken to a nearby hospital after working in 90 degree temperatures. .
According to Southwest Oregon District spokeswoman Natalie Weber, lightning tends to strike at the highest point, so wildfires caused by lightning are often in steep terrain where crews also face challenges like falling rocks and trees.
“In many cases, there’s not very good access, so firefighters drive to the nearest point and then have to walk up the hill to get to the fire to start working on it,” Weber said.
Since the fire season began on June 1, crews have faced triple-digit temperatures and hundreds of lightning strikes, not to mention multiple shut down calls. However, as of this week, no local fires have exceeded the low double digits in area.
With the fire season nearly three months away, local fire officials shared insights about their efforts and the tools used to keep fires small.
Story of another summer
On July 15, 2018, an electrical storm sparked at least 145 fires in southern Oregon. Many of these fires were quickly extinguished, but not all.
Within a week, Rogue Valley air quality forced the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to cancel outdoor performances and Britt to move his outdoor classical concerts to the auditorium of North Medford High School.
Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Fire and Aviation Staff Officer Dan Quinones was the forest’s acting ranger on the day of the 2018 fires.
Quinones also helped allocate resources this fire season, which has a different record: 44 fires that burned a total of 8.07 hectares. He described this season’s strategy in a Zoom interview earlier this month.
“The strategy in ’18 and the strategy today are really the same,” Quinones said. “In 2018, we ran out of things, not just locally but nationally.”
According to Quinones, the July 2018 fires competed with other urgent wildfires, and the Portland Geographic Area Coordination Center had to prioritize resources for fires that threatened people, property and infrastructure.
Fires in rural and wild areas have been lost. Quinones said the resources they had were focused on protecting the communities of Ashland, Butte Falls, Jacksonville and Cave Junction.
“We didn’t have enough stuff to get to those fires in a timely manner, even though we had bridges and so forth,” Quinones said.
In larger firefights, such as those that threaten entire communities, watersheds, or critical infrastructure, the GACC has the ability to reallocate resources. It’s a sword that cuts both ways.
“We could lose some aircraft or ground resources without being asked; they’ll just take them,” Quinones said.
Quinones described a good rapport and relationship with GACC’s Portland office as key to making sure they understand the resources RRSNF needs to maintain during fire season. Currently, he said, “there are no problems.”
“They know our type of fuel here and that our fires, once established, are very resistant to control,” Quinones said.
Prepare for lightning
When lightning is expected, especially on dry fuels, Quinones will coordinate the strategic placement of hand-held equipment, tree fallers, fire engines, water tankers, bulldozers and other necessary equipment on the ground between stations in Prospect, Jacksonville , Powers, Cave Junction. and Gold Beach, along with the J. Herbert Stone Nursery at Central Point.
“We have some places to put things,” Quinones said.
A forest officer from each of the districts oversees forest-wide operations and will seek input from staff officers like Quinones.
“From the big picture, I’ll say, ‘Hey, can we move this asset from one location to another?’ Because that’s what we’re going through,’” Quinones said.
Quinones said he coordinates closely with partner agencies such as the Oregon Department of Forestry on parking and resource allocation.
“We have all the tools in our toolbox that we need, not just for us, but for where we think we need to support our partners as well,” Quinones said. “We organize them around the forest for a quick response to the areas projected for the event.”
New tools to look ahead
Late last month, the Corey Fire broke out on the outskirts of Central Point and White City and began spreading to nearby properties, prompting the evacuation of about 25 nearby residents.
The fire started on a property that contained large amounts of debris and abandoned vehicles, and ended up with three mobile homes on the property, but the fire never exceeded 5 acres and 15 threatened structures were saved.
According to Fire District 3 Chief Robert Horton, the Corey Fire was one of six fires in his jurisdiction with the help of two new camera-based technologies this fire season that gave incident commanders the chance to see what they are up against.
Horton chairs the Governor’s Fire Service Policy Council, which provides guidance to the governor and the Office of the Oregon State Fire Marshal, and was recently named vice president of the Association of Fire Chiefs of ‘West.
In previous years, incident commanders had to wait until the first firefighters arrived on the scene and saw the fire with their own eyes before calling for the resources they needed.
“Today we have the technology that allows that visualization to happen at the time of the event, not at the time the first unit arrives,” Horton said.
According to Horton, the Alert Wildfire Camera system uses cameras that monitor about a dozen areas in the Rogue Valley.
The cameras are designed to complement those used at ODF’s Screening Center, which monitors rural areas in Jackson and Josephine counties.
“They’re looking for lightning in the forest so they can get their resources out quickly,” Horton said. “Our cameras are more focused on the interface, where the forest meets the communities.”
The camera used by Fire District 3 is located on Long Mountain and covers parts of Eagle Point, White City and Sams Valley. Other cameras in the system include one on Mount Baldy that assists Fire District 5, providing a view of Phoenix, Talent and parts of Ashland. A third camera covers the Illinois Valley.
The public can view feeds from visiting cameras alertwildfire.orgbut emergency responders have the power to pan, tilt and zoom if they need to focus on one area, according to Horton.
Fire District 3 worked with the Rogue Valley Council of Governments and Rogue Broadband to install the Long Mountain camera on the company’s tower, according to Horton.
“We worked hard in this partnership to have this camera and the Mount Baldy camera operational this fire season,” Horton said.
Another technology released in late June and early July is the new 911 Eye system, which allows an emergency caller to send live video to a 911 dispatcher.
The 911 dispatcher can send the caller a link that can be shared with Fire District 3 incident command. If bandwidth is limited, the system can host photos.
Since the 2020 Labor Day wildfires, Horton said there are more firefighting resources locally than there were.
Funds made available by the Oregon Legislature last year through Senate Bill 762 provided fire agencies with additional funding that Fire District 3 used to add a wildland response unit each day .
“Since the initial response we have more units to send to the calls,” Horton said.
Other districts in the Rogue Valley used fire funding to increase their staffing, and SB 762 also covered added resources such as engines and air resources for ODF.
“We have more fire resources in our system, across the state, but especially here, starting with the 2020 season,” Horton said.
While more resources are available, Horton recalls the challenge he faced during the 2020 Labor Day fires, when the massively destructive Almeda and South Obenchain Fires broke out. With all local resources fighting the fires, he called on Salem for help, but all state resources went to seven conflagrations across Oregon.
“There were no drives that day,” Horton said. “There’s more capacity in the state of Oregon now, so hopefully we don’t have that vulnerability, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say there’s more room to go.
“We could still use more units across the state,” Horton added.
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