With dense forestland rapidly drying out, wildfire prevention has been ramped up early in the fire season for the Northwest region of Oregon.

There has not been a significant event this season in the three Oregon Department of Forestry districts, but officials are worried about the potential impacts of hot, dry weather.

Stricter fire safety rules went into effect Friday on private and nonfederal public forestland in the Astoria, Tillamook and Forest Grove districts, putting limits on campfires, smoking and use of chain saws. The decision came after forests dried out quickly in the last two months.

Neal Bond is in his second fire season as Astoria District protection unit forester. “We’re a little bit ahead of schedule this year based of our weather,” he said. “We’ve had a very dry July and a very dry June.” He said both months had below average rainfall.

After looking at indicators and seeing how a few small fires burned, Bond said ODF decided it was best to go ahead with implementing the restrictions sooner.

Since January, 419 fires have burned 1,915 acres on land protected by ODF, according to the department, which is responsible for protecting 16 million acres of private and public land throughout the state.

Beginning in the early 1950s, ODF has protected forestland within the Astoria District. For the fire season, the district is staffed with 12 seasonal firefighters and one seasonal dispatcher to monitor and fight fire starts. Bond has worked at ODF for 13 years in several different firefighting positions and been stationed at districts in central Oregon and on the coast. “We have a great crew,” he said about the Astoria District, which has four forest officers who lead small fire crews.

The district has four patrol blocks that focus on Astoria and Warrenton, U.S. Highway 101 and near the coast, forestland around Jewell and U.S. Highway 30 along the Columbia River. Running seven days a week, the patrols are about prevention and talking with the public, Bond said, but they also are about being nearby if something does happen.

“We want to make sure we are strategically placed around the county so we can respond very quickly,” he said. Six heavy-duty pickup trucks with flatbed compartments to carry gear and 400 or 1,300 gallon water tanks are used by the two- and sometimes three-person crews.

“On a day-to-day basis, we can drive anywhere from 100 to a couple hundred miles depending on where we have to go in go in the county,” said Seth Czehatowski, a forest officer for the district. “We do have a lot of ground to cover but it’s got to be done.”

With the current regulated-use closure, campfires, charcoal fires, cooking fires and warming fires are only allowed in designated locations. The fire crews, dressed in flame-resistant Nomex pants, thick leather boots and a hard hat nearby, patrol for non-industrial use of chainsaws between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. as well as whether an operator has a shovel and fire extinguisher with them in case a spark catches.

Rules can change often and on short notice. Using a Remote Automated Weather (RAW) station, the department determines what fire precautions should be taken by measuring moisture, relative humidity, temperature and wind speed and direction.

“We monitor that all year long, but especially when we get into fire season,” Bond said. Relative humidity, or the amount of water in the air, is a major determining factor, especially when it dips below 40 or 30 percent. When the district sees temperatures rise and moisture in the air decline, ODF can raise the fire levels, tightening restrictions for industrial operations on forestland. The highest level is a complete shutdown, but Bond said the district hasn’t had that since the early 1990s.

Other restrictions

The department also implements restrictions on recreation and general use. They can issue a permit closure, which requires users to go to the district office and obtain a permit before entering.

Chainsaw use, motor vehicles and campfires are halted if conditions become particularly bad and the department doesn’t allow anyone into the woods. But Bond said it’s rare to ever implement the permit closure for public use restrictions. “Typically we just go into fire season and regulated use,” he said.

According to ODF fire statistics, 63 fires have been started by lightning on protected land this year. The coast gets fewer lighting storms and strikes that cause fires compared to eastern Oregon, Bond said.

“Our biggest fire season is when we get those east winds in mid to late September and early October,” he said. That time of year is also the beginning of some hunting seasons and recreational-related fires are more likely. “There’s a lot of potential there for a catastrophic fire,” he said. The average of human-caused fires annually in the last 10 years was 290, with 90 being caused by lightning, according to the department.

The Astoria District crew members can be sent to other parts of the state to assist ODF and other fire crews. In the last week, an engine went to central Oregon to help with the Box Springs Fire 25 miles northwest of Prineville. They were later sent to John Day to be ready for potential lighting strikes and to contain smaller fires. On Friday, the district sent an engine as part of a strike team to the Pacifica Fire, which burned approximately 500 acres south of Grants Pass.

The district’s fire trucks have pumps to draft water from rivers and streams, but there are some places that it isn’t possible to do that.

“Having something like this that can travel and dump almost 1,300 gallons of water on site when we get there – it’s a good thing to have,” said Kurt Donaldson, a forest officer at the Astoria District, about the largest engine on site.

Donaldson, a fire science instructor at Clatsop Community College, has worked for ODF in the summer for the past 10 years and began his fire service career with the Knappa-Svensen-Burnside Rural Fire?Protection District.

“It’s a great truck; we use it quite a bit,” he said. “There’s not anything really like it in the rest of the county. It fills a unique niche.”

The trucks carry thousands of feet of hose to be hooked up to tanks or to draw water. In the forward compartments, crew members store their fire packs, additional water, ready-to-eat food, batteries and spare radio packs.

Backpack pumps that carry approximately 5 gallons of water are used if the fire is a mile or more in from where the engine can go, or for added maneuverability. “Even to get the smaller smokes out it’s a lot better to use (the backpack) because you use a lot less water and you can be a lot more mobile,” Czehatowski said.

Last year was Czehatowski’s first with the department. “I absolutely love the area and the people I work with,” he said. Originally from Redding, Calif., he finished up schooling and then came back permanently.

“Fitness is a big part of surviving,” said Czehatowski, adding that he rides a bicycle 30 miles a day to stay in shape. At the district garage, a bench press and fitness equipment is set up next to rolls of hoses and rows of axes and shovels. “We may never need peak physical fitness on a fire, but you never know if that can make the difference,” he said.

At the scene of a fire, crew members will each have a separate axe or shovel and clear vegetation down to bare soil so that there’s nothing left to burn. Four of the seasonal firefighters at the Astoria District are wildland fire suppression specialists with some experience, while four more are entry-level, straight from fire school.

Training

On July 13 and 14, controlled fires were set at Camp Rilea, burning 100 acres of dune grass. Firefighters were able to practice calling in aerial drops. The practice is crucial, Bond said. “Folks got some experience lighting a fire and seeing how it burned,” he said. “Training is something we take very seriously.” The best is training that is most realistic, he added.

Bond said that the department is eager for people to recreate on the land, but want to make sure it’s in a fire safe manner so the forest is there for others to enjoy.

“It’s state forest and it’s public ground and folks can recreate on that and we encourage that,”?he said.

   

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