Resources, safety concerns hamper firefighting efforts
If officials could summon twice the number of firefighters, it might help corral the expanding Chetco Bar fire, the largest wildfire in Oregon and also the biggest generator of smoke in the region.
"If we had additional resources now, say 3,200 firefighters instead of 1,600, we could build a more indirect line and do it faster," said Jim Whittington, public information officer with Joint Information Command in Medford. "It would help, but I'm not sure it would have made a difference at the beginning stages."
Local residents may wonder why more planes and firefighters aren't being sent to 128,738-acre Chetco Bar fire, which is burning in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness west of Grants Pass and is the third-largest fire in the West.
Officials say this taxing fire season has put a strain on the 19,000 firefighters committed to battling blazes across the nation.
Almost every state in the West has been hit by major wildfires. The Chetco Bar remains a top priority, prompting Gov. Kate Brown to deploy 120 National Guard soldiers to the fire this week. The fire is only 5 percent contained, though Brookings is better protected because crews have established fire lines to save houses.
Further complicating the issue is that many part-time firefighters have been jumping from fire to fire since last fall and are heading home, weary from sweaty, smoky days and nights of back-breaking and dangerous work. Others are returning to college soon.
When fire officials make a determination where they should deploy firefighters, one of the priorities is to send manpower to areas where homes or towns are threatened.
As a result, officials are constantly re-establishing priorities for where they need to send limited personnel. Sometimes deploying firefighters to establish a line is a waiting game to see whether the fire, weather and terrain leave enough of an opening for crews to safely access an area.
During the initial phases of the Chetco Bar fire, ignited July 12 by lightning, erratic winds and rough terrain posed considerable threats to firefighters, who would have risked their lives attacking the advancing flames head-on.
Some roads and hillsides are off-limits because firefighters can get trapped by rolling debris or become surrounded by flames.
"We're not the military," Whittington said. "We don't have acceptable losses. We want everybody to go home."
Dispatching firefighters along the lines also has to be a managed operation to be effective, which further limits the amount of manpower that can be used to establish lines.
During the initial attack on the Chetco, Whittington said, "The whole area was a little too dynamic where we couldn't mitigate the risk."
As a result, firefighters try to cut lines a safe distance from the advancing flames and set back fires to help strengthen those lines.
Sometimes it doesn't work.
"We've had heavily treated areas where we removed a lot of brush, but then we got a crown fire," Whittington said.
Whittington said many people don't have a good understanding of the role airplanes play in helping control fires.
When retardant is dropped, it temporarily dampens a fire but doesn't suppress it, except in open-range land, he said. That temporary effect can help firefighters establish lines and minimize their risk.
Also, when retardant is dropped on heavily forested areas, it doesn't do a good job coating the trees, so it's not as effective with crown fires.
Further complicating the air support is the smoke itself, which frequently has prevented planes from dropping retardant because of visibility issues. Steep terrain is also risky for planes.
The Chetco Bar fire has advanced into acreage engulfed by the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire of 2002.
As with any fire, the Biscuit burned more in some places than others. Calculations made after the fire determined 14 percent of the land was heavily burned, 23 percent moderately and 39 percent had low levels of burning. Another 24 percent was either lightly singed or barely affected.
The Chetco has pushed its way into areas of the Biscuit fire toward the Illinois Valley that were moderately to severely burned.
These Biscuit fire areas came back with heavy brush that has been burning vigorously this summer, Whittington said.
From Tuesday to Wednesday, the Chetco Bar fire roared to life, gobbling up another 8,000 acres as it pushed to the north, south and east with wind-driven runs and crown fires. The most active area was near Johnson Butte, northwest of Cave Junction, which sent a column of smoke 16,000 feet into the air. More brush is awaiting the blaze as it makes inroads into the Biscuit-scarred landscape, with the eastern flank extending toward private lands and the Illinois River.
While the fire season started a month earlier than normal in Southern Oregon, firefighters started tackling blazes long before then in other parts of the country.
To date this season, firefighters have battled 46,000 fires on 1.7 million acres.
Late last fall, fires broke out in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
Then in early spring, fires ignited in Alabama, Texas and Kansas, taking out large swaths of range land.
Shawna Legarza, national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, said, "In May and June, we had a lot of fires in Arizona and New Mexico, and then we jumped up into July and we started to see this really dry pattern of air mass come through in the Northwest with hot, dry, windy conditions with a lot of lightning."
In Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, thousands of lightning strikes triggered an overwhelming number of spot fires, most of which were extinguished, but the ones that got away have turned into the large complexes of fires that have scorched the Northwest.
At this point, the best scenario Oregon and other states could see is early rains.
"We're almost into September, and right now there's not a lot showing us that there is any weather-ending event," said Legarza, a former hotshot. "We could be working pretty hard through the months of September and into October."