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Night-vision helicopter will tackle Southern Oregon wildfires

A helicopter capable of tackling fires at night will join the Southern Oregon arsenal this summer. File photo / Coulson Aviation
Conditions ripe for bad wildfire season

Conditions are ripe for a bad wildfire season in Southern Oregon, but a helicopter with night-vision capabilities will be among the weapons in the arsenal this year.

The Oregon Department of Forestry expects to sign a contract to bring the helicopter to the area this summer. Pilots will wear night-vision goggles and have other technology to help them fly at night, said Dave Larson, district forester with ODF’s southwest Oregon region.

“That’s going to be a real game-changer for us here in the valley ― being able to utilize aircraft at night with night-flying capabilities. We’re pretty excited about that,” Larson said.

Fires tend to slow down during cool, moist nighttime conditions, making efforts to snuff them out more effective.

Night aerial firefighting is more common in other fire-prone areas like California and Australia.

Pilots have to avoid crashing into terrain, watch for firefighters and equipment on the ground, be able to hover and suck up water into their tanks and make precise drops on fires under difficult night conditions. But advances in night-vision technology have given them a clearer view, according to the aerial firefighting magazine Aerial Fire.

Larson said safety and operational details for the night-flying helicopter will have to be worked out.

“This year is going to be a trial year,” he said.

Clarification: The night-flying helicopter crew will likely be testing night missions this year with the goal of being fully operational for night flight missions for the 2022 fire season, according to ODF Southwest Oregon District Public Information Office Natalie Weber.

The night helicopter crew has to learn to coordinate with ground firefighters, and heliwells, which look like above-ground swimming pools, need to be stationed around the county to provide quick access to water, Larson said.

But other time-tested resources will likely be in place well before August, including traditional helicopters, airplanes and a large air tanker, he said.

ODF is still solidifying contracts for helicopters and the large air tanker, Weber said.

ODF, the U.S. Forest Service and local fire districts are all on the same page that fires need to be attacked quickly before they can grow into infernos that threaten people and send smoke into the air, said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Merv George.

“We are going to be as aggressive as we can to get our fires out as soon as possible,” he said.

Current conditions and forecasts show firefighters and communities could face a tough battle this year.

ODF declared the start of fire season May 12 in southwest Oregon.

The snowpack is only 31% of normal in the Rogue and Umpqua basins, which is worse than 2020, Larson said.

The western half of Jackson County is in severe drought conditions, while the eastern half is in extreme drought conditions. The area has seen a dry, warm spring, with little precipitation to ease drought conditions, Larson said.

Flammable vegetation has dried out, with fuel moisture levels worse than in 2020 and mimicking typical July conditions. It would take a month of rain to soak those fuels enough to significantly reduce fire danger, Larson said.

"This is very concerning,“ he said.

Although the 2020 fire season saw the most destruction of homes in Oregon history ― including 2,500 in Jackson County ― Oregon saw relatively little lightning activity. A streak of unseasonably hot weather in September and high winds whipped ignition sources into conflagrations.

Monsoons predicted in the deserts of the American Southwest this year could send lightning-prone clouds drifting toward Southern Oregon, Larson said.

Jackson County Fire District No. 3 Chief Bob Horton said work is underway to remove flammable vegetation along the Bear Creek Greenway, and fuels-reduction work is going on in communities around the county.

Fire agencies will call in all firefighters to maximize their staffing if the area faces red flag weather conditions that boost the risk of fires, Horton said.

Still, the area’s firefighting capacity is strained during high demand, and the fire season forecast is not favorable, he said.

The 2020 Almeda fire showed that the water supply and hydrant system aren’t adequate, and first responders are feeling fatigue from the challenges of last fire season and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Horton said.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said the county is still running its Emergency Operations Center.

Staffed by county workers who still have their regular jobs, the center was mobilized in spring 2020 to deal with the pandemic and continues to play a critical role during the pandemic plus the fire cleanup and rebuilding process.

Jordan said the Emergency Operations Center is gearing up to get hit again while still helping with recovery efforts.

“We’re starting from behind to begin with,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.