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Firefighters brace for tough fire season in Pacific Northwest states

by McKenna Ross, The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) |

MOLALLA, Ore. — Over the sound of a growing blaze and a nearing helicopter, firefighters yelled instructions to light brush and neat lines of debris on fire. Trainers were teaching 104 firefighters from 33 metro agencies, ranging from first-season newbies to seasoned fighters, how to approach wildfires.

Friday’s training is becoming more important than ever. Experts predict the upcoming wildfire season will have higher risks of big, costly fires. That’s coming after 2018′s record-setting fire season, which racked up wildfire-fighting bills of $514.6 million. The above-average concern focuses on northwest Oregon and western Washington in June, then includes all of western Oregon and eastern Washington by July, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

Burning hundreds of dead Christmas trees was only part of the wildfire training setup. The training focused on skills like effectively communicating to the helicopter above — often piloted by private, state or federal officials who may have not worked together before — where and when to drop 130 gallons of water on a blaze.

Though many students said it was their first time at this type of training, some have been out helping crews before. Several volunteer fighters were dispatched to Colorado, southern Oregon and even Northern California for the Camp Fire in November 2018.

Still, the training prepares crews for future natural disasters that may happen close to home.

“I’d say that fire crews in the state have been getting better and better at this, but it’s unfortunately because we’re seeing more and more fire,” said Lt. Damon Simmons, the training program’s spokesman.

About 15 percent of Oregon is facing abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of the dryness surrounds the Columbia River Gorge and northwest Oregon.

Current dryness is a major factor in wildfire risk. John Saltenberger, a fire weather program manager for NWCC, said a recent study found preceding winters did not factor into the wildfire season. In other words, what matters more is the summer’s dryness. Lightning or human error could start a severe blaze if brush is dry enough.

Though wildfire season hasn’t started in earnest, Washington’s first major event, a burn that reached about 20,000 acres Thursday in central Washington’s Grant County, was fueled by high winds and dryness. The so-called 243 Command Fire started June 3 southwest of Spokane and was mostly contained by Thursday, according to the Southeast Washington Interagency.

Oregon has had 181 fires and about 1,065 acres burned in 2019 so far, according to the state’s Department of Forestry. All but three were human-caused.

A study released by the U.S. Forest Service found communities in southern and central Oregon are most at risk from forest fires. Study ranked each community in Washington and Oregon on its susceptibility to wildfire risk. The top five included Medford, Ore. and Bend, Ore.

Fire analyst Rick Stratton said the study is intended to alert homeowners about their risk, then encourage everyone from residents to government officials to take initiative in preparation.

“The time to prepare for a fire is not when you see it – it’s beforehand,” he said.

The largest wildfires of the past five decades happened in the last several years, Stratton noted. While the conversation of whether costly, large fires are the new normal is ongoing, scientists focus on reviewing data to prepare for upcoming seasons. The study highlights which residents, municipalities and regions should prepare.

“Because we live in this fire environment, we can expect these in the future,” Stratton said. “To be successful in not having these things we care about destroyed, we can’t just look to the feds or the homeowners to protect themselves. Everyone has to get involved.”

To Simmons, that is exactly what metro agencies do at training. He said city fire departments like Salem and Portland are usually new to wildfire fighting but want to learn. Even if their own communities don’t see this action, others may need their help.

“By the time a lot of other resources get into these communities, [local response] has been fighting these fires for a few days,” Simmons said. “It’s very important that we have these firefighters trained and ready to go so they can protect their own communities and others across the state of Oregon.”