Firefighters in Oregon are getting much-needed help from private landowners and forest workers battling large blazes that have devastated communities and filled the skies with thick smoke.
The Oregon Department of Forestry has relied on partnerships with a dozen forest protective associations across the state, whose members include logging and timber companies that can provide additional resources on the fire lines as needed.
Kate Skinner, ODF district forester in Tillamook, said the Pike Road Fire — which started late in the evening on Labor Day and quickly grew to 300 acres, fanned by high easterly winds — is now 35% contained, thanks in large part to support from the local Northwest Forest Protective Association.
At one point, Skinner said, the association provided more than 30 pieces of heavy machinery to dig firebreaks around the inferno and keep it from spreading on the north Oregon coast.
“It was a great response,” Skinner said. “A lot of our resources are from right here in Tillamook County. Our phones were ringing off the hook.”
Forest protective associations are part of the fabric of firefighting in Oregon. Some associations formed more than 100 years ago to keep valuable timberland from going up in flames, with members paying assessments based on the number of acres they own.
Nine out of the 12 associations contract with ODF for firefighting services, while also contributing their own crews and equipment. That has been especially crucial this fire season, as large blazes have torched more than 1 million acres in Oregon, twice as much as the annual average of 500,000 acres.
“This has been critical,” Skinner said. “It’s really supplemented the crews that we’ve had.”
Forest workers were also key to containing the Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire that has burned more than 2,000 acres in the Willamette Valley north of Newberg.
John Ragsdale Logging, Scott Land and Timber, Stimson Lumber Co., Hampton Lumber, Bighorn Logging and Weyerhaeuser all contributed vehicles, personnel or both to dig firebreaks and bring the blaze to nearly full containment, according to ODF.
“These are not crews that make a living fighting fire, these are crews that care for our forests, planting trees and managing tree spacing, but they have the skills to help and made the difference on this fire,” said Mike Cafferata, ODF district forester in Forest Grove.
About 100 miles farther south near Eugene, Pete Sikora, CEO of Giustina Resources, a company that manages nearly 100,000 acres of private timberland, said it has assisted firefighters on the 166,503-acre Holiday Farm Fire that has ripped through the McKenzie River Valley.
Sikora said they have sent crews and equipment, including bulldozers and feller bunchers, to do initial attack on the east end of the fire near the town of McKenzie Bridge. Personnel are also patrolling timberland and clearing roads of trees and debris dropped by high winds after Labor Day.
“The resources on the fire at this point are these private resources,” Sikora said. “They’re all being coordinated through an ODF incident management team. They understand very well how to work cooperatively with landowners to get the most resources on the fire in the most efficient and safe way.”
Both the Linn and Eastern Lane forest protection associations are working with ODF on the Holiday Farm Fire, which remains 6% contained.
“Having that local resource out here is not only less expensive for the state, but is a much safer and more effective way to fight fire,” Sikora said. “When a fire breaks, the state can immediately access landowner resources and help fight those fires.”