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Outdated firefighting system confronts new challenges

Oregon is using an outdated firefighting system that hasn’t adapted to longer fire seasons, excessive fuel loads in forests and climate change, according to Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest Oregon District Forester Dave Larson.

ODF just finished it’s worst fire season on record with 919 fires burning 541,444 acres of ODF-protected land statewide. Those fires included five megafires that topped 100,000 acres, he said.

The total acreage burned broke a previous record of 340,000 acres set back in 1933. The destruction of that 1933 season led to the creation of the ODF fire protection program, Larson said.

ODF is charged with protecting private timber lands, other rural land and federal Bureau of Land Management property. It often works across borders in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and rural and city fire departments.

On the ODF Southwest Oregon District, fires burned 40,494 acres — almost quadruple the 10-year average of 11,000 acres burned annually, Larson said.

Even though conditions on the ground have changed, ODF is still using an outdated fire protection model and funding system dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, Larson said.

“Now we’re in totally different times,” he said.

Larson said firefighting has become more complex and sophisticated, with firefighters also dealing with climate change and excessive fuel loads in forests.

“Everything is really compounding the problem here,” he said.

Larson said the state needs a different firefighting strategy.

ODF relies on light year-round staffing that is buttressed during the fire season with an influx of temporary firefighters. It typically budgets for four-month fire seasons, Larson said.

The Southwest Oregon District just finished its longest fire season yet — stretching 190 days from May 1 to Nov. 6. Although fire season hadn’t yet been declared, ODF also battled fires in April, Larson said.

He said today’s wildland firefighters are highly skilled and trained. It can take a decade for a new firefighter to gain enough experience to become a division supervisor with the tactical knowledge to battle fires while keeping firefighters safe.

Yet the Southwest Oregon District relies on 25 permanent staff with 125 seasonal workers to safeguard 1.8 million acres of ODF-protected land in Jackson and Josephine counties, Larson said.

Those seasonal workers often do fuels reduction work in the off-season for a variety of government agencies and employers, but their careers can be unstable.

“I see in the future there’s going to have to be a different model in order to keep those folks around to not only increase our capacity, but to maintain the experience that we have on the line. I couldn’t have done what we did this year without experienced folks,” Larson said.

ODF firefighters are fighting fires on grass and woodlands, but they also deal with the complication of homes sprinkled across rural land and in the urban-wildland interface at the edges of communities.

The Southwest Oregon District has the most interface land of any district in the state, Larson said.

This season, nine different communities in the district had to evacuate or were on notice to evacuate, he said.

“We were definitely stretched to our capacity,” Larson said.

In July, ODF was able to hammer the Worthington fire northeast of Eagle Point with ground and air attacks, eventually containing it at 761 acres.

The Grizzly Creek fire on Sept. 4 was detected by ODF’s system of remote cameras and caught at 325 acres.

But after a string of days topping 100 degrees in September, hot, dry winds blowing in from the east caused the Sept. 8 South Obenchain fire north of Eagle Point to explode in size.

The same conditions fueled fast-moving fires in California and even in northern Oregon’s cool, moist forests — which are known to firefighters as the “asbestos forest” because of their fire resilience in most years, Larson said.

Firefighting resources across the West were stretched to the breaking point.

Timberland managers, rural residents and others joined ODF in the fight against the South Obenchain fire, which ultimately burned dozens of homes and 32,671 acres.

“Folks just jumped on this fire,” Larson said.

Their efforts stopped the fire from destroying Shady Cove and Butte Falls.

At the same time, the wind-driven Almeda fire that started on Sept. 8 in north Ashland destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, primarily in Talent and Phoenix. ODF helped other fire agencies on that 3,200-acre urban and rural conflagration.

Larson said the Medford Air Tanker Base was critical during the fire season.

Multiple helicopters and planes flew regular missions out of the base, including an old DC-7 air tanker under contract with ODF. That tanker alone dropped almost 200,000 gallons of retardant and 9,000 gallons of water, Larson said.

ODF’s 10-year contract for the plane ends this year, and the agency will have to look at other options. It’s so hard to get replacement parts for the plane that two old planes on the ground were cannibalized for parts, he said.

The Forest Service won’t reimburse ODF for the old DC-7’s retardant drops that cost $14,000 each, but Larson said he still authorized drops on Forest Service land to fight the spread of costly, destructive fires.

The old DC-7 doesn’t have an aircraft approval card from the Forest Service, he said.

Larson said the ODF Southwest District plans to keep expanding its system of fire and smoke detection cameras, which are located across 14 sites and now cover about 90% of ODF-protected land.

The cameras are typically located on high vantage points like mountains.

Jackson County Commissioners said ODF, timber managers and residents did a great job battling fires during the unprecedented fire season. Commissioners said they want to do everything they can to advocate for adequate funding, staffing and equipment for ODF from the state.

Larson said he appreciates the support.

“Firefighting is getting more expensive every year,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

The Oregon Department of Forestry relies on a mix of permanent and seasonal firefighters to battle wildfires, but the system is under strain in an era of long fire seasons, climate change and heavy fuel loads in forests. Jamie Lusch/Mail Tribune