ESTACADA, Ore. — Private forestland owned by the timber company Weyerhaeuser lines both sides of Tumala Mountain Road near Estacada, Ore. The road marks the northern perimeter of last year's massive Riverside Fire.
Steve Keniston, region forester for Weyerhaeuser in the Willamette Valley, stopped at one area where crews recently completed a thinning project designed to remove smaller trees and underbrush, referred to as "density management."
The goal, Keniston said, is two-fold. First, by cutting down undersized trees, it eliminates competition for water and nutrients with larger trees that will eventually be harvested and made into wood products.
Second, smaller trees clustered next to bigger ones can act as "ladder fuels" during a catastrophic wildfire, Keniston said. That allows flames to climb from the forest into the canopy where they are much more difficult to contain.
"Density management is one of our key tools," Keniston said, discussing the company's approach to forest management.
Weyerhaeuser owns approximately 2.7 million acres in Oregon and Washington, according to the company's website.
Last year, 125,000 acres owned by the company burned in four large blazes across the Willamette and Umpqua valleys in Western Oregon, including the Riverside, Beachie Creek, Holiday Farm and Archie Creek fires.
This year is proving to be another scorcher, with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland reporting 820,129 acres burning in large fires across Oregon and Washington, versus 40,023 acres at this same time last year.
The Bootleg Fire in south-central Oregon accounts for about half of those acres, at 413,545 as of July 30.
Carol Connelly, spokeswoman for the NICC, said fire season in the Pacific Northwest typically doesn't peak until mid-August.
"This fire season just started off with more large fires than we've seen in the past," Connelly said. "We haven't even plateaued yet."
As wildfires grow bigger and hotter in the West, Keniston said Weyerhaeuser is working not only to prevent large blazes, but contain them quickly before they can devastate neighboring communities.
"Our primary strategy, really, is that initial attack and keeping fires small," he said.
Driving farther into the Weyerhaeuser property, the effects of the Riverside Fire become increasingly apparent. Blackened logs and tree stumps dot the hillsides, while green vegetation has started to regrow out of the dusty soil.
Weyerhaeuser is now replanting the burned acres, which Keniston said they are aiming to complete by 2024. An intense heat wave in late June hasn't made that easy, with many of the newly planted seedlings already dried and brittle.
Approximately 5 miles to the south, Keniston explained how Weyerhaeuser oversaw firefighters and contractors making their stand to prevent the fire from merging with the Beachie Creek Fire within the company's Molalla Tree Farm.
The effort is an example of the state's complete and coordinated system for fighting fires, in collaboration with other land management agencies and private forest operators.
Nick Hennemann, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said landowners such as Weyerhaeuser play a major role in the system.
"They're an integral part of the Oregon firefighting team," Hennemann said. "These are people who know the land and how to operate forestry equipment, often in difficult terrain."
The need for a complete and coordinated system is acknowledged in Oregon statute to protect the state's forestry resources. Once the fire bell rings, Hennemann said local dispatch centers will find the closest available resources to begin the initial attack.
More than 95% of fires are contained at 10 acres or less, Hennemann said.
A company spokesman said Weyerhaeuser also meets regularly with the local ODF district and neighboring landowners during wildfire season to discuss the latest conditions, and will shut down logging if the humidity drops below 30%.
Keniston said he and other Weyerhaeuser foresters enjoy a good working relationship with ODF.
"I think we do a really good job as an industry working together," he said.