So, just how severe was Oregon’s wildfire season this summer? About 838,000 gallons’ worth, according to Neal Laugle, the Department of Forestry’s (ODF) aviation unit manager. That’s how much liquid retardant the department’s air tankers dumped on fires in 2015. And that figure doesn’t include the thousands of gallons of straight water dropped by ODF contracted helicopters in close support of ground firefighting forces.
The window of opportunity in which to stop a new blaze from growing large has shrunk from days to hours, due to the extreme summer weather and forest fuel conditions. Fire managers with ODF and the fire associations increasingly rely on air power to even the odds, launching air and ground resources simultaneously, which often shaves response time to minutes.
ODF’s contracted large air tanker can reach a fire quickly and deliver 3,000 gallons of retardant in a single load. This slows fire growth and buys time for fire engines and hand crews to arrive on scene and begin direct attack. Single-engine air tankers (SEATs) use their speed and maneuverability to box in a fire with multiple, smaller retardant drops. All told, air tankers logged more than 700 flight hours this summer. The agency’s helicopters put in 834 hours slinging water to hot spots with their cable-suspended buckets.
Fire aviation snapshot
Statistics currently available are for ODF- and fire association-protected lands west of the Cascades. This summer, most of the aerial firefighting took place east of the Cascades (86 percent), followed by southern Oregon (14 percent), and northwestern Oregon (less than one percent).
- In 2015, the Douglas Forest Protective Association in Douglas County flew 60 helicopter missions and also assisted ODF’s Southwest Oregon District and the Willamette National Forest. A small plane flew 55 missions that included fire detection, monitoring of existing fires, and guiding air operations (air tankers and helicopters) over fires.
- The department’s Southwest Oregon District (Jackson and Josephine counties) conducted 150 missions, including air tanker and helicopter flights. Helicopters performed air attack, helitack (insertion of firefighters at fires, along with making water drops) and transport of personnel and cargo.
- Coos Forest Protective Association logged 55 flight hours on 19 different fires in Coos and Douglas counties to quench the flames with water drops. In addition, CFPA aircraft flew reconnaissance during lightning events to detect new fires.
ODF’s aggressive firefighting tactics can create an “airshow” of multiple tankers and helicopters over an active fire. When the meter is running on all these aircraft, costs mount quickly. But stopping even one high-potential blaze from spreading to thousands of acres can save millions of dollars in the long term.
As an example, the 26,000-acre Stouts Creek Fire in Douglas County cost $37 million to extinguish. And that is just for suppression. Damage to the forest resource, which includes timber as well as fish and wildlife habitats, typically totals at least three times the firefighting expense.
No one can accurately predict the intensity of future fire seasons. But the current trend has the department, its partner resource agencies, and private forest landowners scrambling to meet the challenge. Aviation will undoubtedly continue to play a major role in Oregon’s fire protection system in the years to come.