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Oregon's Wildfire Arson Team Reassembles

OPB | June 25, 2012 3:47 p.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:01 a.m.

Contributed By:

ALANDO BALLANTYNE

Daily Astorian

Oregon’s wildfire arson patrol will be back on duty beginning next month after a two year hiatus.

The patrol, which began in 1997, was closed in 2009 due to budget constraints. It will again cover the fire season — July through mid-October — and be funded through a federal State Fire Assistance grant that the forest service applies for annually.

The team will work with the Oregon Department of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon State Police as it investigates potential arson-caused wildfires.

The patrol consists of retired state troopers Jim Davis of Klamath Falls and Bill Lyons of Bend. Both have backgrounds in arson investigation.

“These officers will actually be responding to any kind of suspected arsons, not only on the lands that Oregon Department of Forestry protects, but also on National Forest lands,” said Rod Nichols. a spokesperson for ODF. “They will be available to assist on any investigations.”

Nichols explained that two-thirds of all wildfires on ODF land are human-caused, but only 3 percent are arson-related. This percentage is much lower than the national average of 25 percent.

According to a silvicultural study written by government researcher David Butry published in 2002, arson fires most often take place in urban interface areas — places where there is a high level of interaction between urban and forest environments. Oregon has a low population density and low number of urban interface areas. Some officials suspect that urban interface areas could be one of the reasons why, for states like California and Florida, arson is a leading cause of wildfires.    

Between 2000 and 2011 there were 446 confirmed arson fires on ODF-protected land. Eighty-four of these fires took place in Eastern Oregon.

The Umatilla National Forest, in contrast, had only four fires caused by arson out of 1,047 total wildfires. Umatilla National Forest Deputy Fire Staff Officer Chris Johnson explained why the Umatillas may have such a small number of arson fires.

“We’re typically in the high elevations further from towns; state forests (that have more fires) tend to be in more populated areas,” Johnson said.

In comparison to other types of wildfires in the state of Oregon there may be a relatively small number of arson-caused fires, but they often come at a time when firefighting resources are stretched thin.

“The bad thing about arson fires is that they usually occur during the peak of the wildfire season,” Nichols said. “Some people who study this think that these would-be arsonists, they’re watching TV and following the news media and they see all this activity and get excited. And then they go and set fires.

“From what the studies show, it’s people who crave power. They may be angry at someone or a particular person or just angry at the world in general. Some of the wildland arsonists really seem to be seeking attention. It’s surprising that the person who started it will often times report it.”

A big part of the arson patrol is centered on wildfire arson awareness and outreach.

Nichols explained that because many arsonists park on a forest road and observe the areas they plan to burn, the public plays an important role in arson prevention and investigation.

“A lot of our reason for being out there is just high-profile press that somebody may see that our vehicles are marked with ‘Arson Patrol’ on them,” Lyons said. “A lot of time when I’m passing through town people will come up and say, ‘I’ve never heard of that before. What do you do?’

“Hikers, fishers, campers, you name it — we try to make contacts with people. We’re just out there trying to be as social as we can. It doesn’t take long for word of mouth to get around a little bit. We depend on the public a lot.”

Lyons said that the public is encouraged to report suspected arson activity by calling the Arson Patrol Hotline at 1-800-452-7888.

Contact Alando Ballantyne at aballantyne@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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