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MailTribune.com
  • Teamwork, fast response quelled fire costs

  • Interagency cooperation coupled with adequate resources and a gung-ho initial attack on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest likely saved the U.S. Forest Service millions of dollars this past summer.
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  • Interagency cooperation coupled with adequate resources and a gung-ho initial attack on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest likely saved the U.S. Forest Service millions of dollars this past summer.
    That is the conclusion drawn from a staff fire season analysis conducted after the smoke had cleared. The 2013 fire season ended in late September.
    "In this fire season, only one fire on the forest escaped after our initial attack," said Syndy Zerr, deputy fire staff officer for the forest who was interviewed before the partial government shutdown.
    "If we had two or three more, we would have easily spent millions and millions more to suppress the fires," she added.
    The more than 98 percent success rate in stopping the fires during the initial attack was largely the result of cooperation among fire services and the readiness and availability of firefighters, she said.
    The Labrador fire, one of 101 fires reported on the forest this year, cost some $8.1 million to fight. Located a dozen miles west of Selma in the Illinois Valley, the fire burned a little more than 2,000 acres, including a small portion of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness scorched by the massive 2002 Biscuit fire, which burned nearly half a million acres. An evacuation order was issued for residents in the remote Oak Flat community along the lower Illinois River, but the Labrador fire was stopped short of any structures.
    "Because the Labrador fire was within the Biscuit fire scar, it posed a lot of risks for firefighters," Zerr said. "The Biscuit left a significant load of snags per acre."
    Snags are a major hazard to firefighters, she noted.
    The Labrador fire was one of half a dozen major fires triggered by lightning strikes during a dry thunderstorm rumbling through southwestern Oregon on July 26.
    The storm sparked the 24,253-acre Big Windy Complex fire in the lower Rogue River drainage, which cost more than $34 million to stop; the 48,679-acre Douglas Complex fire just north of Glendale, which cost $51.7 million; and the 2,400-acre Brimstone Fire some six miles northwest of Sunny Valley that cost about $8 million. Those fires were on U.S. Bureau of Land Management or private lands.
    Dozens of more fires were sparked by lightning on the national forest, officials said.
    In the Forest Service's Region 6, which includes national forests in Oregon and Washington, there were 229,327 down strikes this year, compared to 120,777 the year before, according to forest spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons. That meant a lot more strikes in the Rogue River-Siskiyou this past summer than the previous year, she said.
    "But we had a success rate of 98.6 percent for our initial attack, stopping the fires," Gibbons said, noting the lion's share of fires on the forest are caused by lightning.
    In Region 6, there were around 3,000 fires in 2012, compared to 4,292 fires this year, she said. Yet 1.5 million acres burned last year, compared to 479,396 acres in 2013, she added.
    The 101 fires on the forest this year was slightly higher than average, Zerr said.
    "One reason for our success in initial attacks was the interagency cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Forestry sharing resources," she said. "We had a large pool of resources to draw from."
    Moreover, the forest was able to fully staff its forest fire program, she said.
    "We were able to fill key positions," she said, noting that included 20 firefighters who repel out of a helicopter to provide an initial attack.
    "We were able to rely on the groups of folks who helped prioritize our need," added Gary Moberly of the forest's fire dispatch center. "We had good coordination with the Southwest Oregon Coordination Group. That was key to have things moving when we needed it."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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