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Oregon firefighters battle blazes in Southwest U.S.

Valencia County (N.M.) Fire department photo A crew dispatched from the Oregon Department of Forestry regroups on the scene of a wildfire that burned through Valencia County in New Mexico.
SW calls for help in the face of extreme fire conditions

Twenty-one firefighters from the Oregon Department of Forestry recently returned to Oregon as another 11 departed for Texas and 17 more are partway through a deployment in New Mexico.

Recent snow and rain in Oregon gave ODF the confidence to spare firefighters and resources, helping other states under mutual assistance agreements.

Texas and New Mexico are currently experiencing dramatic fire conditions said Blake Ellis, fire operations manager at ODF.

“It depends on where you’re at in Texas,” Ellis said. Corpus Christi has seen recent rain, but in the northwest corner of Texas “the conditions are just right,” Ellis said.

In this part of Texas, tall yellow grass stretches across a flat landscape, punctuated by shrubs and telephone poles lining the occasional road. The air is hot, the grass is dry, and the winds have been high — a bad combination for firefighters.

ODF firefighters Chad Calderwood of Sweet Home and Russell Simmons of Coos Bay recently helped fight the Little Highline Fire just north of Amarillo.

They arrived Saturday for initial attack, an attempt to contain or put out the fire while it’s still only five to 10 acres. By Sunday the fire had devoured over 12,000 acres. By 9 a.m. Monday the Little Highline Fire had eaten up to 25,609 acres. It has since been declared 95% contained.

In sending out firefighters, Oregon is in part repaying a favor. In 2020 during the Labor Day fires, 39 states sent 7,500 personnel to help, including Florida, Minnesota, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Ohio, Alaska, Colorado, North Carolina, New Mexico, Texas and several provinces of Canada.

Some of these states are long-term close partners, while for others the working relationship is relatively new.

Ellis described Washington, Montana, Colorado, Idaho, Alaska and Canada as brothers and sisters to Oregon, in terms of the working relationships between the states in the face of wildfires.

North Carolina, Florida, New Mexico, Arizona and California are growing partnerships, and this year is the first year of a formal agreement establishing a close relationship with Texas, which had previously rarely called for help.

Oregon gratefully welcomed 33 firefighters and 15 engines from mutual assistance states to help on the Bootleg fire last summer. Asking for help from reciprocal agreement states was rare 10 years ago, Ellis said, but as fire seasons get longer and harder, ODF has increasingly needed to ask for help and to give it.

“Fire is a family. We’re ready to help whenever we receive the call from one of our partner states,” Mike Shaw, ODF Fire Protection Division chief, said in a press release.

“But know that we don’t give these resources lightly,” Shaw added. “Before committing to any deployment, we make sure that our own fire management system is prepared and ready to respond to fires here in Oregon.”

The recent cold, wet weather is unlikely to delay fire season in Oregon for very long — there was already a small, escaped debris burn March 7 on Sardine Creek Road, northwest of Gold Hill.

“It’s gotten us through April,” Jessica Prakke, ODF public affairs specialist said of the cold weather. “Any day that’s not on fire is a good day.”

Different parts of the U.S. experience fire season at different times, allowing for mutual assistance agreements. In the Southeast — Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and neighboring states — fire season goes through the spring, ends in the summer, and begins again in the fall.

In the Southwest, it begins around April 1 and goes until the monsoon-like rains come around the fourth of July.

The system works in a semi-structured call for help and response. A member state will send out a call for help to federal and national entities, like the National Department of Forestry. If that isn’t enough or the resources aren’t available, they will ask a mutual assistance agreement state directly.

The request describes what kind of assistance is needed, such as number of personnel and types of resources, like engines. The request then filters through the chain of command of ODF, from top brass in Eugene to regional bosses, where it reaches firefighters working for ODF throughout Oregon. If the request were not filtered, chaos is possible.

“You’d be surprised,” Ellis said of the eager response from ODF firefighters to sign up for two-week deployments to member states. “You don’t have to beg, borrow or steal.”

Firefighters see the request and reason with their own schedules, stepping around anniversaries and kids birthdays to help other states and help themselves.

The mutual assistance agreement is more than a mutual exchange of resources, it’s a mutually beneficial system. Firefighters working with ODF are laid off every year when the fire season ends.

Through the mutual assistance agreements, those who want to can pick up assignments that come in from partner states, continuing to work throughout the year and in so doing improve their skills.

“It’s about the art and the craft of firefighting,” Ellis said. The deployments help wildland firefighters keep their skills sharp, which helps ODF fulfill its mission, and “provide valuable service to states getting their butts kicked,” Ellis said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.