July 30, 2013
With more than 35,000 acres burning on lands under its protection, primarily in southwestern Oregon, and fire danger persistently high or extreme across most of the state, the Oregon Department of Forestry is in the midst of its largest wildfire response in more than a decade.
In addition to employees regularly devoted to firefighting, staff from all parts of the agency are away from their regular jobs to serve on fire lines, in fire camps or in other fire-related roles.
"We are scaling back all but the most critical functions as we focus on our No. 1 mission, which is fire protection," State Forester Doug Decker said. "Fire danger and fire behavior indicators are at record levels, with more than two months of fire season left. This is clearly shaping up as a very tough summer."
About 5,000 firefighters, most contracted from the private sector and working under agency supervision, and more than 30 contracted aircraft are in action on ODF fires statewide.
With most agency staff assigned to fires or in fire support roles, other operations are curtailed. The routine services of field foresters, whose duties include monitoring compliance with forest practices rules during logging and answering questions from the public and family forestland owners, are substantially reduced.
Citizens may encounter delays in receiving services or information by telephone or at ODF offices.
On Monday, employees were asked to cancel vacations in most situations until further notice.
Although crews are responding to fire calls across Oregon, the largest blazes are currently in southern Oregon. A portion of the Douglas Complex of fires, estimated at more than 21,400 acres, has forced evacuations in the Glendale area, in Douglas and Josephine counties, and continues to threaten homes. Several other fires in the area are also continuing to grow.
The current rash of fires began with a surge of lightning late last week that sparked about 300 fires in southern Oregon, including more than 100 on ODF-protected lands.
Governor John Kitzhaber has pledged resources across state government, including signing a declaration authorizing assistance from the National Guard. He also has urged the public to use the utmost caution to prevent additional fires.
ODF protects about 16 million acres— just over half of Oregon's forest landbase. These are privately owned forests as well as some public lands, including state-owned forests and, by contract, U.S. Bureau of Land Management forests in western Oregon.
The agency has about 660 employees, and brings on about 400 seasonal workers, mostly firefighters. In addition to the permanent and seasonal firefighters stationed across the state—who extinguish more than 90 percent of fires at 10 acres or less—the department maintains a "militia" approach, using employees whose regular jobs are in programs across the agency, to respond to the few fires that do grow large.
Through the militia, ODF maintains three incident management teams for large fires. Two teams are now deployed, one at the Douglas Complex, and one at the nearby Brimstone fire. Dozens more employees have also been assigned to those fires or others.
ODF districts across the state are now staffed at levels that ensure their ability to provide an initial response to any new fire starts.
The situation is comparable to a resource drawdown the department experienced in 2002.
However, the department, like other firefighting agencies, has access to a variety of other resources. Primary among them are forest landowners, who share the fire protection system's costs, and who bring their own firefighting crews, equipment and knowledge. Many landowner resources are already engaged.
The agency is also part of a web of local, state and federal agencies, including some in Canada, that share resources, moving them to the areas of greatest demand. The department is working jointly with many of these partners including the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, on the major fires in Southern Oregon.
For the first time, the agency also has access this summer to additional air tankers and helicopters—critical resources—as part of the Wildfire Protection Act, passed by the 2013 Legislature.
"This is what we plan for—what we do," Decker said. "With our own dedicated and skilled folks, our many cooperators and contractors, and the new resources the legislature has provided, we will meet this challenge."