Wildland Arson Prevention and Patrol Rolls Out Again in 2012
By: GR Castillo
After a three year hiatus, the Wildland Urban-Interface Arson Patrol Project troopers have again begun patrolling Oregon’s fire susceptible forests in Central and Southern Oregon.
During the early 1990’s Oregon suffered significant losses from the actions of wildland arsonists. In 1997 a five year pilot program was implemented through a cooperative agreement between the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and the Oregon State Police (OSP). Funded by a grant provided by ODF, manned by OSP retirees and managed by the OSP Arson Unit, it was designed to provide an extra set of eyes and a law enforcement investigative tool in what was determined to be particularly vulnerable, high fire risk areas. Over time the program has proven itself to be a valuable resource to OSP’s statewide partners. Referring to the OSP retirees, Jeff Bonebrake, Fire Investigation/Cost Recovery Coordinator with ODF indicated , “Actual benefits realized as a result of the program are much greater than may have been anticipated at project inception. The program provides a resource that requires minimal investment for a very high return. Each officer entering the program brings with them a career’s worth of law enforcement and investigative experience, essentially able to hit the ground running. As sworn officers, they bring with them authorities and capabilities that we as an agency are not able to directly provide.”
Working this year from July 1 to mid-October, the program is operating with retired Senior Troopers, Bill Lyons out of Bend and James Davis from Klamath Falls. The majority of fires in these areas are caused by lightening followed by human carelessness. While it is hard to quantify what hasn’t happened, statistics support the decline in deliberately set fires since the inception of the program. Troopers Lyons and Davis have divided the state in half and patrol the wilderness within driving distance of a 10 hour day and are available to respond to calls from ODF for assistance outside their immediate areas. Since the program has been on hiatus, Sergeant Matt Lawson of the Arson Unit felt it was important to spend some time with the two troopers to get an understanding of the status and scope of the program. He also asked that I write an article to help readers understand the history and intent behind the Wildland Arson Patrol. While Sergeant Lawson rode with Senior Trooper Davis, I had the opportunity to spend the day with Senior Trooper Lyons as he made his patrols through the Ochoco Mountains east of Bend.
Bill began his career in 1972 where he primarily worked Patrol and Training, retiring in 2000. Although he came back as a retiree in other capacities to the Department, by far his favorite summer job has been the Wildland Patrol. Contacted in 2007 by then Sergeant Tom Kipp about the position, it took him a day to agree to do it. By then he was barely able to edge out other contenders for the job. In his first year he enjoyed making a lot of law enforcement and other agency contacts that he carried over into 2008. Because the program went on a three year break, he is reestablishing those contacts and is pleased to find that he and the program are still remembered.
One of our first stops was at the Prineville Oregon Department of Forestry office, Bill’s primary ODF reporting station. There I met another GR, Assistant Unit Forester, GR Foster. Foster indicated how glad he was to have Bill back on patrol. “It’s great to have another pair of eyes and to know we have partners out there. We appreciate the help very much.”
Back on the road and heading for Wild Cat Campground, I asked him how many miles he typically covers in a day and what he does on his patrols. He responded that he drives anywhere between 100 – 250 miles per day depending on the terrain. When up in the hills on back roads he drives slowly looking for glints of sun off vehicles or windows that maybe shouldn’t be up there and he looks into it. He checks out camp fire sites in unimproved areas and makes sure they are out. He also provides an investigative arm at fire scenes when requested, but his primary responsibility is public relations. While I was with him, we pulled into campgrounds where he checked out fire pits to make sure no one had left anything burning, chatted with visitors and a camp host and posted flyers with a fire tip line phone number on it. Bill’s objective was to make people aware that the fire season was upon us, that there was a law enforcement presence in the area and to observe any behavior out of the ordinary. In one campground he found an unattended fire and called out to see if anyone was around. An answer came from inside a tent but the person wouldn’t come out. Since this particular camper was away from everyone else and kept inside his tent, Bill took his vehicle plate number, planning to run it when he returned to the patrol office. In the past he has found people with outstanding warrants, located stolen vehicles, put out abandoned camp fires and over a two year period made nearly 2,000 citizen, business and other agency contacts. I asked him if he ever cited or arrested people and he said no, he calls the local patrol office and has someone come out. Even though he is armed, “Law Enforcement is a young man’s game. I don’t really want to be wrestling anyone out here”. Since a lot of his activity is in remote, isolated areas I asked if he ever had anything scary happen. And while nothing “scary” has happened, he is cautiously prepared though not paranoid. There are a few areas where he doesn’t have radio coverage but not a lot and Dispatch checks on him hourly. He is prepared, in the event of getting stuck or in an accident, to contact dispatch with his coordinates, stay warm and have plenty of water. He indicated he has only used his GPS once when he wasn’t sure where he was, but for the most part he relies on US Forest Service maps to get around. His radio number is also recognized and he knows that the patrol vehicles are aware that he is out there and that they are keeping an eye out for him.
As we continued to bounce over graveled and deeply rutted roads, I asked what his favorite part of the job was. Bill quickly responded, “The beautiful scenery. When you’re in Patrol all you see is asphalt and the center line. Fish & Wildlife must have the best job in the department. I love this job and consider it a privilege to do; that they actually pay me to do it is great!”
After the scenery though, Bill indicated the opportunity to participate in fire investigations is the most interesting part of the job. He has received FI-210 training through ODF to certify him for wildland fire investigation. During the two previous fire seasons he has patrolled, Bill actively participated in 6 to 7 fire investigations and was on the scene for 6 more. He finds it fascinating that through this training, investigators are able to trace back to where a multi-acre fire started and are able to find evidence of the cause. One case he investigated involved a mushroom picker that flicked a cigarette into the brush which started a fire. Investigators were able to find the cigarette butt and trace footsteps back to where a vehicle had been parked. They talked to some other pickers who provided information about the vehicle which in turn assisted them in locating where the person of interest had camped. Evidence was found in the camp that led them to the suspect, who eventually confessed to his part in the blaze.
And of course like all good OSP troopers, Bill had some stories to tell.
Having a real aversion to snakes, he was participating in the investigation of a fire in The Dalles area. He and another investigator noticed that there were a number of people at the foot of the hill they were on that probably shouldn’t be there. They began to make their way down to ask them to move along. Having just started, Bill noticed movement in the grass. It then became apparent that the entire hill was crawling with rattlesnakes that had been displaced from their dens by the fire. He and his companion decided that it was ok for those people at the foot of the hill to stay right where they were without any interference from them.
Another investigation found him in the Sky Lake wilderness area where a Hot Shot Crew had flown in. For those of you who don’t know, Hot Shot Crews are generally made up of young men in the late teens and early twenties. The fire scene was about a 12 mile round trip walk. The Hot Shot Crew had already made the trip twice that day, but went in again with Bill. Bill kept up with them as best he could but he knew he was slowing them down a bit. He collected evidence at the scene and on the 6 mile walk back out the crew leader kept calling out to him if he was with them and keeping up, Bill answered in the affirmative but all he could think about really was getting back to his truck to get to his hotel and a hot tub. Just as he was about to reach his vehicle, the crew leader hollered, “Hey Lyons, we got another fire down the road – can you come with us?” Bill never made it to the hot tub. “At the end of the day I told them I was fine, but I had really been worked over.”
We had a great day together out in the beautiful Ochocos, Bill generously shared his wife’s homemade cookies with me, and I got a chance to get an even better understanding of a program that I had been Admin for since 1998. Bill hopes to see the program expanded to include more personnel and wider coverage. While he thinks he will stop working in a couple of years, he knows he will miss it. It was apparent to me that this job requires a certain personality type to achieve the goals of the program. It is not a position for someone who wants to make a lot of arrests or who gets bored easily. You have to like people and like talking to people. An easy going, personable, non-intimidating persona that puts people at ease leaves the citizens out there wanting to help and Bill is a perfect fit. So if you are ever out in the forests near Bend and Klamath Falls, Medford area and see a white truck with Oregon State Police Wildland Arson Patrol sticker on it, please say hello to Bill or Jim and thank them for all they do to help keep our beautiful state safe and green.