Fires in Oregon, Washington brought firefighter influx

Forest Service chief, other top official visit Central Oregon

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling


Calling all hands

Large wildfires this month in and near Central Oregon caused fire officials to call in help, with fire crews coming from half of the states in the union — from as close as California and Idaho and as far as Alaska and Maine. The influx of firefighters helped swell the number of people fighting each fire:

Bridge 99 Complex Fire near Camp Sherman: 822

Logging Unit Fires on Warm Springs Indian Reservation: 1,291

Shaniko Butte Fire on Warm Springs Indian Reservation: 622

Ochoco Complex Fire near Prineville: 631

Waterman Complex between Prineville and Mitchell: 903

Pine Creek Fire near Fossil: 679

Source: Northwest Interagency Coordination Center

REDMOND AIR CENTER — Just as the recent wildfires in the Northwest drew firefighting help from around the country, they also prompted a visit Saturday by a pair of high-level U.S. Forest Service officials from Washington, D.C.

Tom Tidwell, Forest Service chief, and Tom Harbour, the agency’s director of fire and aviation, toured the Redmond Air Center early Saturday afternoon and then met in Prineville with officials in charge of some of the recent big blazes in and near Central Oregon. The air center is home to an air tanker base, the Redmond Hotshots crew and a smokejumper squad.

Today, Tidwell and Harbour are set to visit with firefighters in Washington state, where the Carlton Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in state history, has burned 300 homes. .

Tidwell said he and Harbour came out to the Northwest to talk with firefighters, thank them for their work and gain an appreciation of what they’ve been contending with.

“It helps for me to be able to see firsthand,” Tidwell said.

Saturday evening they visited the fire camp for the Ochoco Complex at Crook County Middle School in Prineville. As busy as firefighters have been, Tidwell and Harbour said they could soon be even busier.

“We are just now getting into the active fire season,” Tidwell said.

The onslaught of wildfire in the region early this month triggered a big response from firefighters around the country. Firefighters from half the states in the union — from nearby states such as California and Idaho and as faraway as Alaska and Maine — came to help.

At the peak there were more than a dozen large wildfires burning in Oregon and nearly 6,000 firefighters — from commanders at camp to hand crew members digging fire line — working around the state, said Mike Ferris, a Forest Service spokesman in Boise. The fires have burned more than 615,000 acres, or more than 960 square miles.

Another 4,000 firefighters tackled Washington state wildfires, which have burned more than 275,000 acres, or over 425 square miles. Combined, an army of 10,000 firefighters, in addition to local fire crews, have fought this summer’s wildfires in Oregon and Washington.

“That’s a lot of people,” Harbour said.

During a busy wildfire season, there may be 20,000 firefighters fighting blazes around the country. What has saved federal and state firefighting crews from reaching such levels so far is that fire activity has been slow in California and other Western states.

Normally the Forest Service, BLM, Oregon Department of Forestry and other firefighting agencies in Central Oregon have 26 fire engines and seven 20-person hand crews at the ready, said Kassidy Kern, spokeswoman for the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville. Near the end of last week, as the large wildfires were winding down, there were still an extra 60 fire engines and 37 hand crews here to help out.

“We had so many large fires across a not entirely large geographic area,” Kern said.

The fires in Oregon include blazes near Camp Sherman, on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and in the Ochoco Mountains.

When firefighters come in from outside the state, their focus is on the larger fires. Doing so leaves local fire crews available to respond to new fires, what firefighters refer to as “initial attack.”

“You never want to deplete your initial attack resources in a local area,” Ferris said, “because those people need to be ready to respond to the next fire.”

Harbour said the Forest Service and other agencies give local firefighters this responsibility because they know the roads, forest or range conditions and who might be able to help them best on a particular fire.

When it comes time to bring in help, Ferris said fire officials first look to nearby states. Depending on how busy fire season is there and what personnel is available — or if there is great need for help as there was in Oregon and Washington — they may end up searching even farther for support.

“... It is not unusual for us to send a jet back east and bring back five crews (about 100 firefighters) to the Northwest whenever we need them,” Ferris said.

As Tidwell, Harbour mentioned that fire season in the Northwest is typically the busiest in August and September.

“History shows that the Pacific Northwest should have three, four or five more rounds of lightning,” Harbour said.

The next round could be soon, with the National Weather Service calling for a slight chance of thunderstorms in Central Oregon throughout the week.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

Current fire perimeters

Outlines indicate total burn area, not active burn area. Information courtesy Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.