SALEM — Fire has no respect for boundaries created by humans. It doesn’t care if the drought-damaged ponderosa pine it is consuming is in Deschutes or Klamath county, Oregon or California, the United States or Canada.
The jigsaw puzzle of land responsibilities — U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Forestry, city lands and private property — is meaningless to flames.
Yet, these dotted lines have historically hindered rapid response when a major wildfire makes its march across hundreds of miles, threatening scores of lives, thousands of buildings and millions of acres of land. The map lines sometimes decide who foots the bill when the ashes finally cool.
Gov. Kate Brown last week held a press briefing that included the outline of preparations to fight wildfires in 2019. Oregon is expanding its communications within and beyond the state to coordinate and share resources with California, Washington and British Columbia.
“We are in much better alignment and are much better at collaborative efforts than in the past,” Brown said.
The Democratic-dominated West Coast states have clashed with President Donald Trump and his administration on a variety of issues, but Brown said federal help was crucial for wildfire prevention.
“We need their support,” she said.
The fear is that wildfires will start earlier and grow bigger, while population increases bring more homes within range of identified wildfire zones. Any delay or hiccup in early wildfire response can allow a blaze to grow out of control.
In 2018, 9 million acres burned nationwide. That was down from 2017 when 71,000 blazes charred 10 million acres in the United States, the second most on record. Wildfires in Oregon cost a record $514 million last year, eclipsing the record set the year before, when they cost $447 million.
The 2019 outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center is mixed. The good news: Despite a “moderate drought,” much of the Northwest, including Central Oregon, is forecast to have normal fire danger. The center’s projections for Oregon areas west of the Cascades is not so optimistic. A warmer-than-average summer will bring an early fire season in June. The worst danger is in Western Washington, where the center says conditions are “at risk for more large fires than usual due to persistent dryness.”
What has brought a new level of concern are fires occurring close to towns and cities.
The image of huge wildfires roaring across swaths of remote forests dense with trees but only sprinkled lightly with humans was sharply challenged in November by the deadliest wildfire in 100 years.
A downed Pacific Gas & Electric Co. transmission line sparked the Camp Fire in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills north of Sacramento. The fire rapidly swept into the town of Paradise, with most of the nearly 27,000 residents fleeing for their lives. At least 85 people were killed and almost 19,000 buildings destroyed. The fire cost nearly $17 billion. PG&E, which supplies the electricity to most of the northern two-thirds of the state, cited potential liability for the fire as a major reason it filed for bankruptcy in January.
Officially, the Oregon state forester will declare when the fire season has arrived. But like the boundaries on the map, human timetables also go unheeded by nature.
“When is the fire season? I would say we are already in the fire season,” said Jason Miner, the governor’s natural resources policy director, during an interview last week. “It’s when the first fire starts, and we have already had some significant fires.”
As of last week, state officials had recorded 137 fires this year that burned 1,031 acres. Fast firefighter reaction to flare-ups and the generally cool and wet conditions of much of the landscape until recent weeks have aided dousing the flames — for now.
“It’s been a tricky year,” Miner said.
The state’s numbers show one possibly ominous trend. By mid-May in 2018, there had been 93 fires — 20 started by lightning strikes and 73 due to human causes. At the same point this year, there have been 136 fires caused by humans — and only one by lightning strike.
The late, large snowfall this year has lulled residents into thinking the landscape is wetter and colder than it is, Miner said. Warmer weather in April and May melted or washed away much of the snow, while residents were left with fallen branches, leaves and debris they wanted to clear and put into a pile to burn.
Burn piles that winds fanned into surrounding brush and trees have been a top reason for early fires. So were hot cinders from improperly extinguished campfires that blew into forests, red-hot chain saws and other pieces of equipment left on dry grass, and incidents with vehicles — such as a hot, loose muffler that ignites grass on a shoulder when a driver pulls over or parks.
Even before the last of the winter snow melted, the Oregon Department of Forestry began clearing areas that could give fuel to a summer fire — and they didn’t stop working just because a line on the map ended state responsibility.
“We are using the ‘good neighbor policy,’ which allows us to do the work on federal lands,” Miner said.
The state has stepped up its efforts to prepare for wildfires in 2019. Two National Guard battalions of 125 soldiers each have been trained as wildland firefighters, with a third battalion finishing the training soon. When trained, the troops can be mobilized into action within 24 hours. Three incident management teams drawn from state agency offices around the state have been formed. They will coordinate on-scene command of major incidents, using recent training by the Oregon state fire marshal
“Until fire comes into being on the landscape, those teams don’t get together,” Miner said.
The state owns or has contracted with a total of 28 aircraft of different sizes and roles that will be available to move around the state to spot and fight fires. The state paid $700,000 to equip one aircraft with an infrared camera that can capture images of fire even through thick smoke.
Seeing flames has at times proved a problem for spotter aircraft, particularly in the 2018 Klondike Fire centered in the Siskiyou National Forest that burned over 175,000 acres, and the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire near the southwest coastal town of Brookings that burned over 191,000 acres.
“When smoke cover is low over canyons, it’s difficult to see exactly where the fire is burning,” Miner said. The infrared photography can follow flames and transmit images to command centers that can pinpoint positions to better deploy aerial and ground firefighting units.
The state can also use software to predict where lightning strikes might start fires and what direction the flames are most likely to go.
The specter of the Camp Fire and its high loss of human life has spurred a debate over how to deal with increasing development in formerly sparsely populated forest areas.
The reaction in Salem and Washington, D.C., has been legislation aimed and taking a harder look at what’s called the “wildland-urban interface,” where forests meet communities adjacent to or within fire zones.
While praising the action of state and federal lawmakers, Brown said most of the legislation would not have an impact until the 2020 fire season.
“We still have this year,” she said.
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, email@example.com