Last week, thunderstorms plagued Josephine and Jackson counties. Then, in a 13-hour period, crews responded to about 50 reports of fire in the region. On top of the fires, the Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest Oregon District also dealt with the loss of camera equipment that aids in fire detection.
“Unfortunately, we’re one detection camera site down in northeastern Jackson County after a few unwelcome visitors took the liberty of breaking into our lookout tower and helping themselves to our equipment,” the agency stated in a Facebook post.
Natalie Weber is the public information officer for the ODF Southwest Oregon District. She joins us with details on how the agency has been handling the challenges of this year’s fire season.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: We start today with an update on the fire season in southwest Oregon. It has been a rough week crews responded to about 50 reports of fires after thunderstorms ripped through the area. One firefighter died while battling the Rum Creek fire in Josephine County. And in Jackson County thieves stole solar panels and batteries that powered a fire tower lookout camera system. Natalie Weber is a public information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry, Southwest District. She joins us now with more details. Can you give us a sense for what happened after thunderstorms hit Jackson and Josephine counties last Wednesday?
Natalie Weber: Absolutely. Any time we have what we call lightning busts like that, we really just go into overdrive looking for the newest fire starts. It really is all hands on deck. We brought in all of our firefighters across the district, which is about 150 people for Jackson and Josephine Counties. Our camera detection center staff were working, following where those lightning strikes were happening. [They were] using the cameras in those locations to start finding smokes and then, of course, our dispatch centers were taking call after call of fire reports. The storm really did hit Jackson and Josephine County pretty equally and a lot of different areas. So those 50 reports that you mentioned, we started receiving right away. It was very clear that we were going to be needing some help. We started calling in contract resources to even begin, that night, to staff night shifts. And we really just started working on top priority fires going down.
Miller: When you get 50 calls, does that mean it’s 50 different fires? And how do you figure out what’s actually happening?
Weber: That’s a really great question. We did have about 50 fires. I’m sure we actually got even more reports than that. It is extremely hectic and chaotic, especially in those first couple of hours, because you know, we’re receiving phone calls from people, one person might be on one side of a mountain seeing a fire reporting it, the other person’s on the other side. We have to determine if that is the same fire or are these two separate incidents. And so there’s a lot of information that needs to be really just figured out in that 1st 24 hours. And we spent a lot of time doing that.
Looking back on those releases that I put out about that, there really wasn’t a lot of information beyond just very emergent information. We were very fortunate, in the sense that the fires that were burning near homes, we were able to get resources to and keep them from being considered threatened and keep those folks safe. But just trying to hunt down that information - here’s how many fires we have, here are their sizes, here are the resources - it’s just impossible in that initial time period.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for the most serious fires that followed from the storm?
Weber: Yeah. The way that we ended up splitting it, in Jackson County, we had the West Side Complex. That consisted of eight fires in and around Tallowbox Mountain which is south of Applegate. Of those, the largest ones were the Ladybug fire, the Keeler fire and the Tallowbox fire. The largest one of those actually reached about 80 acres before we were able to line it and contain it to that size. And then in Josephine County we had the Lightning Gulch Complex which is made up of about 40 separate fires. The largest one on that was the Rum Creek fire which is, at this point, the only one considered still active. Northwest Incident Management Team 13 has come in to take that on to relieve our local resources so we can get a little bit of rest and then be ready for the next call.
Miller: My understanding is that almost 600 people were assigned to the West Side Complex, split between day and night shifts. Can you just remind us what kind of human power is needed to work on these multifire outbreaks?
Weber: Oh gosh a lot. A lot of times when we’re talking about these things, people are just thinking ‘wow, you know, 600 firefighters’. But there are a lot of support roles that go into that as well. We have, of course, the firefighters on the ground, we have tree fallers, we have dozer operators, we have aircraft, as well as, sometimes, traffic control [and] sometimes we’re talking about dispatchers, our staff that that works regularly as well as all the contract crews that we have out there. [We have] hand crews that are working to create line and do that mop up work all the way to ODF overhead personnel who are making sure things are going on the right track. So there are a lot of different pieces to that puzzle that really make these operations work. That 600 figure is a lot of firefighters and people on the line, but there are also a lot of support roles.
Miller: I should mention that we spent about 24 hours at a fire camp outside of Grants Pass four years ago to get some understanding of what life was like there and to see an almost instant city that popped up and how it functioned. We’re going to tweet out a link if people want to listen to that show, to listen back or to listen for the first time. But it does remind me, thinking about all the people who work in one of these places because staffing has been a huge issue for many different employment sectors for years, certainly for months now in almost an increasing way. Are you able to find enough people to staff fire camps?
Weber: We do and we didn’t really get to that point where we had a fire camp on the District until Northwest Incident Management Team came in over the weekend. And they are starting to set up a camp out for the Rum Creek and Hog Creek fires. But a lot of the folks that we had working on these lightning complexes since they broke out on Wednesday, are of course our local staff and a lot of local contractors. There are people who live right here in our community who are ready to respond.
Every spring we have these companies submit incident resource agreements with us and just let us know what resources they have available. We get that contact information so as soon as we have an incident that we realize we’re going to need a little bit of extra support and resources on, we can take out that list and call them and they’re here pretty much immediately or whenever they’re available. We’re fortunate that we have so many fire fighting companies in southern Oregon and Oregon itself, just in the region, because that’s really what it takes when we have these large scale incidents.
Miller: A firefighter, a contractor from Talent named Logan Taylor died last week, as I mentioned while working on the Rum Creek fire. Can you tell us what happened?
Weber: At this time I can tell you Logan was assigned to the Rum Creek Fire. In a very unfortunate accident, he was struck by a tree. He was transported by air to Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center where he did later pass. ODF and BLMand really everyone who’s been out on the line, it’s just been an extremely sad time. We’re all extremely saddened by this loss. The firefighting community is a really tight one and we go to work every day and we face these challenges and these hazards and dangerous difficult situations and I think a lot of people don’t necessarily think about that. But we’re constantly aware of those hazards. And you know, really just taking that time to reflect on his service and ultimately his sacrifice [has made it] a rarely somber time.
Miller: What kind of investigation happens after a death, like Logan Taylor’s?
Weber: A lot of what you might expect - just looking into what happened, speaking with the people who were there, looking at the fire and things that were going on at the scene and just really compiling that and making sure we have a clear picture of what happened. Then, of course, any lessons [we may have] learned and how we can move forward and use this information from this unfortunate situation to just keep people safe in the future.
Miller: The Oregon Legislature passed a bill last year, Senate Bill 762, that was a comprehensive wildfire preparedness bill. And we’ve talked a lot about the mapping. That’s one piece of that in terms of wildfire risk. What has that bill meant in terms of firefighting?
Weber: Locally here on the District, we did receive some funds. Some new positions really are what that came down to for us. We were able to add a new assistant district forester to just extend that leadership for the district. We also added two new protection supervisors which are the supervisors that supervised firefighters. And actually this week, those positions really did come in handy. We were able to really divide both counties and quadrants as far as fires and locations and command structure [while having] additional protection supervisors left over one to just kind of handle district business and the other to be ready for any new initial attack fires and situations that we could have. Had we not had those two additional positions, that would have looked a lot different. So it really has helped us out this summer. It’s been a great addition to our staff and also just opportunities for people to keep moving up and advancing their careers
Miller: Last week, ODF officials said that they were putting out fires faster than in previous years. But we’ve also heard from fire scientists in the last couple of years a kind of crescendo from them that there has been too much suppression in the western U. S. going back 100 years leading to overstocked forests that can lead to more devastating fires when fires inevitably happen. How do you decide which fires to actively fight and which ones to let burn?
Weber: Well as an agency, ODF’s number one directive is to put out fires as quickly as we can, keeping them as small as possible. So we aren’t really given that choice of whether to put out a fire or not. That’s just what we’re directed to do. So that’s always going to be our mission. Speaking here locally for my District, we protect a lot of land with homes in and around it. So it’s always a priority, no matter the agency, to put out fires. In this general area it’s not necessarily only the land that’s being affected in the forest. There is that human element and keeping people safe. For ODF, we protect private land as well as BLM land here locally. A lot of the fires that we respond to, there are homes in and around those areas and what we call the wild and urban interface. And so you know it’s always a priority to make sure that we’re keeping those folks safe and trying to limit as many evacuations as we possibly can.
Miller: As I noted on top of the many fires that followed lightning strikes last week, there was also some equipment that was stolen from the district recently. What exactly happened?
Weber: That’s a very interesting story. We noticed that we had a camera go down near the Prospect area. Investigating why, we found that a few individuals actually broke into our lookout tower in that area and took, not the cameras, but all the equipment and the batteries and the things to run it. That was a little bit of a shock. It was terrible timing for us in the sense that it took that resource away. But we immediately started ordering all of those parts and pieces that make the camera run. We’re still waiting on some of those, unfortunately. They’re a little bit difficult to get a hold of, but the things that really were taken were solar panels and then some batteries and specialty parts and pieces to this camera system. We did report that to the Jackson County Sheriff’s office and we’ve been working with them on their investigation trying to track these folks down and our equipment as well. But we just can’t wait to get those things back. So we’re moving forward, if we get our parts and pieces back, we’re going to be happy about that. Our top priority is making sure that the camera’s up and running. So that’s what we’re doing on this side of things and our law enforcement partners are doing their jobs as well and we appreciate that partnership.
Miller: There is still at least another month of dry, hot weather to come with potentially more storms as well. What is your forecast for the rest of this fire season?
Weber: Oh, that’s very difficult to say. You know, there are so many factors that come into play when we’re talking about wildfire. Here locally in southern Oregon, we have a lot of those, just naturally. We have the topography that supports fire. We have the climate and we have the fuels and so when you mix in the weather forecast, that’s really the final piece to that puzzle. So unless someone has a crystal ball on what the weather is going to look like, I really couldn’t tell you, but as long as we continue to see that hot, dry weather and any winds in the forecast, there is that chance for fires to start and spread. And so we’re really just asking people to be aware of that. You know, we’re still here in extreme fire danger in Jackson and Josephine counties and things are dry and they’re ready to burn. One thing that we really appreciate from the last week is that we haven’t had a lot of human caused fires, which has been huge because we’ve been extremely busy fighting the ones that we can’t prevent from lightning. So we are just asking folks to keep doing that good work. We appreciate our partnerships with our communities and how dedicated they are to preventing human caused fires. That’s something that we just need to continue until we see that significant change in the weather and rain starts coming into the forecast. Up to this point this summer this lightning storm has really produced the largest incident that we’ve had on our districts and we’re really hoping to keep it that way.
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