Quick action keeps E. Oregon wildfires at bay
By GEORGE PLAVEN
EO Media Group
PENDLETON, Ore. — Faced with a record wildfire season in 2013, the Oregon Department of Forestry spent an estimated $121.6 million battling large blazes across the state — primarily in southwest Oregon, where the Douglas and Big Windy complexes burned a combined 76,234 acres.
Frequent bouts of lightning also sparked an above-average number of fires in the agency’s Northeast Oregon District, where forest fuels and grasses dried out weeks ahead of schedule. But local crews held their own, pouncing aggressively on new fires before they had the chance to spread.
District Forester John Buckman said initial attack was critical to their success, especially as resources were spread thin at the height of a busy year. The fiscal cupboard was already bare, and another large fire might have overwhelmed the system.
“That added a little extra incentive,” Buckman said. “We were fortunate to have a handle on it the way we did.”
Wildfire season isn’t quite over in Eastern Oregon, though recent rain and cooler weather allowed district officials to lift use closures on Tuesday. The Northeast Oregon District covers about 1.8 million acres in Umatilla, Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, as well as portions of Grant, Malheur and Morrow counties.
A total of 96 fires started in the district since fire season was declared July 1, though firefighters held most to just several acres in size. Approximately 275 acres of ODF-protected land burned through the region, well below the 10-year average of 2,000 acres.
That figure bucks statewide tallies, where large fire complexes from outside Grants Pass to near The Dalles scorched 140,400 acres of ODF land — the most since 1951, shattering the 10-year average of 12,876 acres.
On the Umatilla National Forest, Fire Staff Officer Brian Goff said their suppression activities were also highly successful. Their largest fire, the Vinegar fire, burned 1,351 acres in the Greenhorn Unit of the North Fork John Day Wilderness Area, and should be fully contained by the end of the month.
Fire danger is moderate through the forest, Goff said, and could drop to low soon depending on the weather.
“We had regular lightning that kept our folks busy through August and early September,” Goff said. “We certainly utilized a lot of resources to keep those fires contained.”
Bret Ruby, fire staff officer on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, said they also dealt with lightning and responded quickly to put out fires before they could grow. Their largest was the 530-acre Cuba fire 30 miles east of Joseph, on the Idaho side of the Snake River.
The U.S. Forest Service does not declare a formal fire season, though public use restrictions were lifted a week ago in both forests.
While ODF-protected lands bore the brunt of wildfires this season, spokesman Rod Nichols praised interagency cooperation with the USFS, Bureau of Land Management and rural fire departments. Fire crews coordinated well, shoring up resources and keeping a bad situation from getting any worse.
“It was a great effort,” Nichols said. “All the agencies just coordinate and fight fire. They’re pretty jurisdiction-blind when it comes to putting out fire.”
The Wildfire Protection Act, signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber July 8, leveraged an additional $2.5 million for fire suppression resources, which helped pay for two single-engine air tankers stationed at La Grande. Buckman said the funding certainly paid big dividends in the district.