By GORDON N. FOSTER
For the Capital Press
2012 could be remembered as the year of the range fire in Oregon. Eighty-plus days of hot weather with no significant rainfall dried out grasses, shrubs and timber to the point that any ignition source, lightning or human, virtually assured a fast-spreading wildfire. And as the summer dragged on, there were sparks aplenty.
At nearly 600,000 acres, the Long Draw Fire in Malheur County rewrote the record books as the state's largest blaze in a century. It had company: The Holloway Fire scorched 461,000 acres across two states, with a quarter-million of the total in Oregon. Yet another incident, the Barry Point Fire, consumed more than 50,000 acres of mostly rangeland on this side of the California border, for a total of more than 93,000 acres in both states.
Amid the intense wildfire activity, Oregon's rangeland fire protection associations (RFPA) demonstrated their worth many times over. The Long Draw Fire, as large as it grew, would have caused considerably more damage were it not for the firefighters of the Jordan Valley RFPA, who were charged with stopping its northern advance.
"Long Draw was a 30-mile front from Highway 95 to the (Owyhee) river," RFPA member Bob Skinner said. "It was predicted to go past us -- there was an evacuation notice issued -- but we were able to keep it out of Rome."
Association firefighters trekked into the rugged canyon with backpack pumps to battle the blaze. Intimately familiar with the terrain, he said the fire would have run a long distance if their direct attack hadn't prevented it from jumping the river.
Earlier in the summer the Fields Andrews RFPA, whose jurisdiction lies west of the Jordan Valley RFPA's, made its mark fighting the Holloway Fire.
"We had crews on Holloway about six days. Our focus was on saving personal property -- buildings and so forth," association board chair Bob Barclay said. "Working with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), we got ahead of it and kept anything from being destroyed."
On some portions of the fire, 75 to 80 percent slopes added to the difficulty for the ground firefighters. But air support, courtesy of the BLM, more than made up for the steep terrain.
"At one point, we called for backup from a 1,000-gallon helicopter in Winnemucca. I explained our situation to the (BLM) supervisor," he said. "In about 15 minutes the helicopter was in the air."
In addition, air tankers supported Fields Andrews' ground attack on the Holloway Fire by dropping numerous loads of fire retardant.
At the same time that the associations were delivering extra firefighting punch on large range fires in 2012, their heads-up initial attack on high-potential fire starts likely prevented additional major incidents. The RFPAs excel in reaching new fires quickly. Their firefighters are dispersed throughout the jurisdiction and connected by an efficient communication system.
"We live there and know how to get to the fires in the middle of the night, even in heavy smoke," Skinner said.
As dry thunderstorms relentlessly pounded the region with lightning, the rancher-firefighters' knowledge of local road systems and water sources enabled them to get in, put out the new starts and then get out safely.
As an integral component of Oregon's complete and coordinated fire protection system, the associations work closely with the BLM and Oregon Department of Forestry. Formal recognition of a rangeland fire protection association enables ODF to obtain federal surplus equipment such as trucks and fire engines. It also opens up eligibility for grants to purchase communications equipment and fire tools, make vehicle repairs and other things necessary to maintain the rangeland fire protection associations.
Working with the Burns District BLM, the Fields Andrews Rangeland Fire Protection Association was able to install two 10,000-gallon water tanks at the BLM complex west of Fields.
"Now we just drive a truck under the valve and fill its tank in a hurry," Barclay said.
The 2012 fire season hit many eastern Oregon livestock operations hard. But at the same time it proved the value of the rangeland association concept as a cost-effective means of safeguarding their grazing lands from catastrophic loss.
For more information on rangeland fire protection associations, including how to form one, contact: Gordon N. Foster, Rangeland Protection Coordinator, 541-447-5658 ext. 237.
In six years on the job as the Oregon Department of Forestry's rangeland protection coordinator, Gordon N. Foster has tripled the number of rangeland associations.
Currently 3.2 million acres of private rangeland and a half-million acres of state rangeland receive wildfire protection through 14 RFPAs.