Think Out Loud

California strike teams assist in Oregon firefighting

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Aug. 17, 2023 5:32 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Aug. 17

California firefighters have come to Oregon to help battle blazes. The Bedrock Fire continues to burn in the Willamette National Forest and evacuation orders are in place. The governor has declared an emergency conflagration over the Lookout Fire in Lane County which allowed resources to be quickly dispatched to affected areas. Meanwhile, the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s office released a report detailing the progress it’s made with wildfire funding from SB 762. We check in with Alison Green, the Oregon State Fire Marshal public affairs director.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. There is a lot of Oregon wildfire news these days and we’re going to get an overview of all of it right now from the State Fire Marshal’s office. Fires are burning in Lynn, Curry, and Wasco counties. Some of the biggest are in Lane County which has go-now evacuation orders still in place. The governor has declared an emergency conflagration there and California firefighters have been brought in to help. Meanwhile, the Fire Marshal’s office just put out its latest report detailing the progress it’s making with wildfire preparedness and response. That’s something lawmakers ask the office to do twice a year. Now, Alison Green is the public affairs director for the Oregon State Fire Marshal, and she joins us now. It’s good to have you on the show.

Alison Green: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a joy to be here.

Miller: What fires are the top concerns at the state level right now?

Green: As of right now, there are a few, particularly that our agency is keeping a very close eye on. The ones right now in Lane County, both the Lookout and Bedrock, having those fires on the Cascades, frankly, right in the heart of fire season always puts our radar up. The Flat Fire, down in Southwest Oregon, is also still on the landscape. So those are kind of the big key ones we’re keeping an eye on, with the triple digits this week and then of course, the lightning storms that came through Northern California as well as much of Oregon. The next few days are gonna be really challenging and pretty critical to keep a really sharp eye on any new starts as they emerge.

Miller: But it seems like the biggest nightmare scenario is high winds in combination with heat and a parched landscape or things like lightning strikes or humans doing idiotic things. It was high winds that led to the massive fires in Labor Day of 2020. So far, I haven’t seen dangerously high winds in the forecast in Oregon. Is that still holding?

Green: That is still holding and we, as an agency, also share those concerns. The winds we saw in 2020 were devastating, right? And they impacted our communities and Oregon up and down, north to south across the state. And so the high winds are always concerning, the east winds are always concerning. Typically, in the summertime we have winds that are predominantly out of the north-northwest. And so when the fall and the weather starts shifting, the east winds come in, but we do not see any high forecasted winds as of yet. But of course, we’re checking those forecasts, if not daily, multiple times a day, to make sure that our folks on the ground are as prepared as possible for any incoming weather and then we communicate that out as well to our communities.

Miller: I noted earlier that the governor declared an emergency conflagration at the beginning of this week over the Lookout Fire. That’s one of the fires in Lane County. What does that declaration actually mean?

Green: So, officially - and this is actually our fourth conflagration of the year in Oregon - a lot of times what that means is when we talk to our local fire chiefs on the ground, they communicate with our office that essentially, “hey, this fire is giving us some trouble. It’s threatening lives and property and we’re throwing everything at it, but we need more help.” And so when the governor declares a conflagration or invokes the Conflagration Act, it allows for us, as a state, to mobilize structural fire service engines and tenders and firefighters to help support the local fire districts in protecting life and structures.

Miller: Is that connected to firefighters from California coming to help or is that separate?

Green: It is actually a giant coordinated system, but so I would say yes and no. So the Conflagration Act or a declaration allows for us to mobilize statewide. The folks from California that came up through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact or EMAC, that is actually a standing agreement that say, for instance, our Oregon Emergency Management has with Cal OES, or I think it’s the Office of Emergency Services. We, essentially, will talk to them and say, “hey, our system is stretched to capacity. We have challenging weather, can you guys please come help us?” And so if we are at a conflagration level, we have folks out, our capacity is stretched thin. That’s when we tap into that state-to-state EMAC, to get support down, to really bring in more structural firefighters to help protect communities.

Miller: And my understanding is that’s the same kind of state helping state effort that has sent California firefighters to Hawaii recently as well. So where are California firefighters right now?

Green: We had five strike teams. So essentially 25 engines, structural engines and the corresponding firefighters. They came up and so we have a couple of those strike teams actually deployed on the Lookout Fire to help with operations. We have some folks on the Bedrock and then we also have folks who are helping in local jurisdictions, for any of those new starts that may emerge over the coming days.

Miller: You mentioned lightning strikes which we’ve seen recently. Obviously, we have no control over that. But we can choose to not shoot fireworks into bone dry forests, or we can choose to not have campfires when there’s high fire danger. What role are humans playing right now in fires?

Green: Oh, my goodness. This summer, unfortunately, we have seen an increase in human caused fires. Typically in Oregon, it’s more of a 60%-ish by human-caused, versus 40% lightning. So it’s still the majority human caused versus lightning. But it’s more of an even split as it were. This year, 82% so far to date have been caused by humans and it’s a variety of factors, right? Campfires, folks parking on dry grass and all of these components. And so we can’t control the lightning to your point. But what we can do is really ask folks, either you live in Oregon or you’re visiting Oregon, to help us fight fires by making sure they don’t even start in the first place and helping us prevent those human caused fires.


Miller: Do you think that that highly skewed ratio is because of, say, fewer lightning strikes? Is it because of a decrease in naturally caused ones or an increase in bad human decisions?

Green: Oh, goodness. Maybe we didn’t have as much lightning this year, but that’s still a huge jump in human caused fires. And it’s things like, maybe it’s folks that are brand new to recreating and they don’t know how to properly put out a campfire or folks accidentally parking on dry grass, right. A lot of times if they’re human caused, it doesn’t always mean that it was on purpose. It was, “oh, no, I did something in the woods on accident and I accidentally started a fire.” So this is really where we ask folks, if you’re going to go recreate, make sure you’re parking in gravel, not on dry grass, make sure if you’re hauling a trailer, those chains are nice and tight, so they’re not dragging on the ground and shooting sparks on the roadside, and if you do have a campfire in places where they’re allowed - a lot of places they’re not allowed right now - that campfire is cold to the touch before you step away so that it doesn’t escape once you leave your campsite.

Miller: Keep putting on pots of water, even past when you think it’s out, because it may not be out, in other words.

Green: Exactly. Well, and if you’re like, “I don’t know if I want to put my hand in there, it’s probably not safe to leave.” So, just make sure that those campfires are dead out before you’re leaving your campsite.

Miller: Or maybe don’t have a campfire right now.

Green: Right now, I would say check your local restrictions. A lot of places, because of the weather and the risk, have put in burn bans and that’s pretty typical for really extreme fire conditions. You can get creative - that doesn’t take away pellet and other types of contained flames. I’ve also seen folks that will have their iPad up. If you want the ambiance, you can have a nice pretty fire picture without having the fire going in your campsite.

Miller: Yeah. And I’ve seen that, and I mean, maybe the honest truth is that’s nowhere near as fun to look at, but it’s better than burning down a forest.

Green: You still get the ambiance, but with the safety to boot.

Miller: So I want to turn to another big issue that your office has been working on: getting Oregonians to be more conscious of defensible space around homes and other buildings. How are you doing that right now?

Green: So there are a couple of ways that we are helping Oregon with that. So for folks that don’t know, when we talk about defensible space, spoiler alert, it has nothing to do with football in the pending football season. This is really a way for you to prepare your home and your yard for potential wildfire impacts. So it’s things like making sure your plants are getting a little extra water in this heat, they’re healthy, they’re cleaned up and limbed up if need be. We don’t have a bunch of pine needles or bark dust right up against our wood deck or wood siding. It’s small actions that we can all take in our yard to make sure that our home has the best chance of surviving a wildfire.

So this time of year, we don’t want folks running chainsaws and a whole bunch of other things, given the fire risk, just talked about preventing it. But now is the time to really have somebody come out and actually take a walk, a fire professional, come take a walk with you around your property and give you some free recommendations on what you could start doing come this fall and this spring. So folks can check out defensible space tips on This is really something that we can all do to reduce our wildfire risk. We have lots of natural impacts. All of us are watching what is happening to our neighbors in Hawaii right now, and so helping all of us reduce the risk, it doesn’t get rid of all of the risk, but it does help us feel a little bit more secure that if wildfire does come to our communities, our home has the absolute best chance of surviving.

Miller: One of the issues we’ve talked about with federal officials from the Forest Service, for example, is that filling firefighter positions has been a serious challenge. It’s the firefighter version of a national challenge for so many people who are trying to hire. What kind of work are you doing at the state level to help improve this?

Green: That’s a great question. And I would say the bolstering capacity for firefighters, we’re seeing some similar challenges on the structural fire side of things. So our structural fire departments are seeing some challenges in capacity. So in Senate Bill 762 and you guys had a great plug for us, we put out our biannual report about a week ago and we essentially had two tasks that were given to us. One was kind of this defensible space, education, supporting communities in preparing themselves and giving them the tools to do that. The other one was bolstering and modernizing a wildland fire response and bolstering capacity for the structural fire service. So, for us, we have been investing in grants to support structural fire service and boosting that capacity. One of our grant programs, it’s called the Wildfire Season Staffing Grant and where we infuse about $6 million into the structural fire service to hire folks for the fire season, so that they have as many people online during these very critical fire weather months, to keep fires small and away from communities. Absolutely critical to success.

Miller: A lot of what we’ve been talking about has been funded by what I understand is a big one-time infusion of money by lawmakers in the 2021 session. Has that money run out and when it fully does, what do you do?

Green: Great, great question. Yes, we were given a one-time investment and it was $81 million to work on everything from community wildfire risk production to bolstering the capacity of the Oregon fire service. And that was bolstering with people power and with apparatus powers. With engines. And so we were grateful for that. We felt like we were great stewards of that money. And so this time around, we have spent all of the $81 million. We have folks that are implementing those grants on the ground, and we are really hoping that we can make the case to be a good investment in the future in the upcoming short session.

Miller: Alison Green, thanks very much for your time.

Green: Wonderful. Thank you so much for having me.

Miller: Alison Green is public affairs director for the Oregon State Fire Marshal. She joined us to give us an overview of wildfire fighting and prevention all across the state of Oregon.

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