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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.