ELSIE - The fire engine seemed a little out of place in the steady rain that had people crouched underneath umbrellas, wrapped in parkas or peeking out from underneath the hoods of waterproof jackets.

And, in fact, the entire matter of wildfires seemed slightly incongruous when Tuesday's overcast and wet weather made a roaring fire seem like an attractive option. Wildfire, however, is such a serious topic for public and private foresters that it always has a place on their minds whether it's wet or dry.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

Jay Holland of Longview Fibre speaks to the group about the active logging operation at the Grand Rapids site.That point was driven home during a tour for local business and community leaders by the Clatsop County Economic Development Council's forestry and wood products committee. An annual event, this year's forestry tour highlighted fire protection by taking participants to a working logging site and a section of forest that had been burned over during a practice fire.

The day's events would have included a demonstration of helicopter firefighting tactics by a Weyerhaeuser helicopter, but the bad weather scratched that off the list.

At the first stop, a thinning operation at Grand Rapids roughly 10 miles west of the Necanicum Junction on U.S. Highway 26, workers were operating a harvest machine as well as a loader and other pieces of equipment.

Quality Timber Cutting of Knappa was running the operation for the property owner Longview Fibre. John Barendse, owner of QTC, said a fire truck parked on a logging road accessing the operation was required by the state for fire protection.

"We're probably happier to see the rain than you are," he told the group of about 60 people who attended the tour.

As Barendse described the operation, the harvester machine snatched second-growth hemlock trees and had them delimbed, section cut and stacked by the time it took him to finish a few sentences.

Jay Holland, who runs coastal tree farms for Longview Fibre, said the logging job was an impressive display at how technology has changed the business. "Now just one guy does what two or three could do," he said.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

The charred remnants of a June training burn could be seen at the tour's last stop. Yet he said there wasn't much money in the thinning job, because one load of thinned timber yields about 3,000 board feet as opposed to a 5,000 board foot yield from mature trees. He said the Grand Rapids site produced about three to four loads a day.

And in about 15 years, Holland said he expects to clear cut the site.

CooperationTom Savage, Astoria District forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said in a speech later in the day that effective cooperation between loggers and state foresters has ensured that despite the heavy equipment used in logging there aren't more forest fires caused by the machines.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

The group heads out after viewing a thinning operation Tuesday morning. Prior to that speech, organizers had hoped to give an example of that cooperation by demonstrating how helicopters play a role in firefighting. Scott Marlega, chairman of the forestry wood products committee and a land-use forester with Weyerhaeuser, said a Bell 206 helicopter from the company's Chehalis, Wash., aviation base had been scheduled to come down for a show.

"The helicopter was going to fly in this way and we had all sorts of good stuff planned," he told to the group perched on what members had to assume was the scenic viewpoint from Flagpole Ridge, which was almost totally fogged in.

But despite the weather, Tom Parke a Weyerhaeuser forester and North Coast helicopter coordinator, detailed the company's regional helicopter resources.

He said three helicopters are based in Washington and two more in Eugene. One is always on standby in case a fire is reported near or on company land.

Also set up at the site was a mobile "dip tank" used in conjunction with a 5,000-gallon water tender truck that allows firefighters to set up a water source for the helicopter near a fire.

Parke said the Bell chopper that would have been used in the demonstration can drop 120 gallons of water from the air.

ODF firefighter Neal Laugle said Clatsop County surprisingly has few spots where a helicopter can pick up water. The dip tanks are valuable to providing air coverage for area fires.

Helicopter drops can be far more effective than fighting the fire with ground crews because flames can be knocked down so much quicker from the air. Using the recent Navy Heights fire that burned near Emerald Heights east of Astoria as an example, he said the fire was under control is less than half the time it would have taken had it been fought only from the ground.

TrainingThe tour's last stop was the site of a practice burn outside Elsie. Longview Fibre's Holland said the burned area had already been harvested and the fire would help prepare the soil for replanting.

He said such burns provide company foresters with experience in handling forest fires, as well as offering a training chance for rural, volunteer firefighters. The fire in late June was a little bit more than just the average training experience as temperatures in the 100s helped drive the fire to 50 acres.

After lunch at the Camp 18 restaurant, the group heard from Savage and State Forester Marvin Brown.

Brown recently accepted the position following a forestry career spent mainly in Missouri. He said the high level of cooperation in Oregon between the state and private landowners in terms of fire protection "is unique and really extremely effective."

But, he said, several huge fires in Oregon in the past three years are stretching the state's ability to pay for such fires. The state does have an insurance policy that covers its emergency fire fund, but he said such fires as last year's Biscuit Fire and the currently burning B and B complex have the same affect on that fire policy as three accidents in one year for the average driver.

He said he's looking into alternatives for funding, but expects fires to just get costly as development encroaches into forestry areas and firefighters have to deal with not just threatened timber but buildings as well.


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