As firefighters continue to battle a number wildfires that broke out this week, they’re also preparing for what lies ahead. The Northwest fire season is far from over and the potential for large fires remains high throughout much of the region. Forecasters says this year’s season has the potential to be more severe than usual. Oregon fire managers are hoping a change in funding could give them a leg up.
It was only a few days ago, that smoke could be seen towing over the homes that make up the neighborhood of antelope meadows south of La Pine.
Today, the smoke is gone. In fact, if it weren’t for the scattered water tenders and other heavy equipment that occasionally pass by there isn’t much to indicate that the large fire burned up to some residents doorsteps.
Cecil Lowe shows me a photo he took on his phone. A huge cloud of smoke towers high above the roof of his home. Lowe says he gathered up some clothes, some legal papers and food for his dogs. Then he waited.
“We were on guard ready to go, because if the wind changed and started blowing toward us we knew we had minutes,” he recalls.
Lowe says soon heavy air tankers and helicopters roared overhead dropping water and retardant driving the fire back.
“Boom, they knocked it down,” he says. “I mean the smoke started dropping down, the amount of smoke, everything. And they were just staying heavy on us and then they just slowly moved away as the fire went further southeast”
Lowe credits firefighters for saving his home that day. None of the of the 120 homes evacuated were lost. But with suppression nearly complete, it’s clear those efforts weren’t cheap. The Bureau of Land Management estimates the bill for this fire will be at least half a million dollars.
State Forester Doug Decker heads up the Oregon Department of Forestry. He says the bill for really large fires can run even higher. “If it’s a complex fire with hundreds or thousands of people and multiple aircraft involved, it’s not uncommon to spend a million and a half, two million dollars a day fighting that fire.”
Oregon spent on average about $8 million each of the last five years. Compare that to Washington, which spent $40 million last year alone.
Decker says limiting Oregon’s financial exposure was at the heart of this month’s passage of House Bill 2050. The Wildfire Protection Act, as it’s called, scrapped a model that put private timber owners on the hook for the first $10 million, in favor of an approach that evenly splits large fire costs.
In return, the bill applies an additional $3 million in fees assessed from landowners toward the state’s severity program. That money gets used to pays for things air tankers and helicopters, resources that can be used to keep small fires from getting big.
Decker likens it to the idea of preventive medicine.
“It makes much more sense to take a lower cost application of effective response instead of waiting for a fire to get larger,” he says.
Over the last few weeks, ODF has used some of the funding to bring on three new helicopters, two additional air tankers and a detection aircraft to help find fires early.
Getting there early and being prepared is what the firefighters at Oregon Department of Forestry’s sub-unit in Sisters focus on every day.
One member of the team sharpens an ax-like tool known as a Pulaski while others roll hoses and check equipment.
Protection Supervisor Ben Duda says the first 12 hours to 24 hours of a fire are critical and aircraft can often make the difference, especially when other resources are stretched thin.
Ben Duda: “If we can use that big hammer in that 12 hour, 24 hour initial attack period to deliver that kind of water especially to some of those fire that are a little bit more remote, a little bit harder to access, they can keep that fire in check, keep it from getting to established while ground forces get there to support that, that’s really critical.”
But early detection is only part of the solution, says Steven Fitzgerald, a professor of Forestry and Natural Resources with the Oregon State University Extension Service in Redmond. Fitzgerald says in order to reduce the number of large catastrophic fires, fuel reduction and forest thinning needs to play a role too, particularly in areas of historic fire suppression.
“There’s a huge backlog of fuel that’s built up over the last century that needs to be dealt with,” Fitzgerald says. “I call it this ‘deferred ecological maintenance’ that we need to deal with to try to get ahead of the problem.”
Lowe, who watched the Stagecoach Fire from this front yard, rightfully gives credit to the firefighters for saving his home. But he might also owe a debt to the crews that completed a BLM-funded thinning project on the outskirts of his neighborhood about three years ago.
Firefighters working the Stagecoach Fire reported the thinning project performed as intended, lowering the intensity of the fire, and allowing the retardant dropped by air tankers to penetrate the pine canopy and snuff out the flames before any homes were lost.