Oregon’s wildfires have burned over 300,000 acres and cost of firefighting has surpassed $100 million

 
27 August 2017

published by http://registerguard.com


USA - LOWELL — Close to Eugene and just up a winding forest road from Lowell, one of Oregon’s many multimillion-dollar forest fires this season is smouldering and flaring away.

The Jones Fire exemplifies wildfire in Oregon this year. Started by lightning in remote, steep terrain on the Willamette National Forest, the blaze was too dangerous to squelch when it blew up on Aug. 12, sending up a 25,000-foot-high column of smoke. The Whitewater Fire near Marion Forks, the Milli Fire near Sisters and the massive Chetco Bar Fire near Brookings have similar stories.

Firefighters on the Jones Fire have dug containment lines distant from the blaze and plan to burn woods between those lines and the wildfire when winds are right. But the fire has been unpredictable, for example when it jumped parts of Big Fall Creek Road, or Forest Road 18, earlier this month.

As the Jones Fire has grown, so has the cost of fighting it. So far, the blaze has cost the U.S. Forest Service $6.6 million to fight, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. The Jones Fire, and most of Western Oregon’s other big fires this season, are largely on federal land, meaning Uncle Sam foots the ever-growing bill.

Federal accountants set budgets for fires. And sometimes have to reset them, said Mike Ciraulo, incident commander for Northwest Incident Management Team 10. The team was in charge of fighting the Jones Fire for two weeks until Saturday.

“They run a model and then they come up with a number of what would it take to put out,” he said.

Originally the Jones Fire budget was $5 million. But when the fire jumped containment lines earlier this month, the budget went up to $10 million.

“This is not going to be a short-term fire,” Ciraulo said Thursday.

The fire has burned more than 5,500 acres and another federal team took it over Saturday. Firefighters are waiting for fall rains to put the fire out.

Taxpayers foot the bill

Nearly a dozen large wildfires are burning in Oregon this summer, a fire season marked by extremely hot and dry weather.

The large fires in Oregon have cost the state and federal agencies a combined $100 million to fight so far, said Brian Ballou, spokesman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. The center organizes firefighting for the Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other agencies.

Separately, the state Department of Forestry has spent just under $14.3 million this year on fighting fires, department spokesman Jim Gersbach said. Over the past 10 years the state has spent an average of $34.3 million annually on fighting wildfires.

Wildfire this year already has burned more than 300,000 acres in Oregon, Ballou said.

Taxpayer money covers the costs of fighting wildfires, with the funds coming from local, state and federal coffers. Which agency pays the bill depends on which agency oversees the burned lands. The Forest Service manages national forests, home to the bulk of the fires burning this year in Oregon, and the state Department of Forestry protects state-owned forests, private timberland and federal Bureau of Land Management land west of the Cascades.

This fire season has seen a rapid acceleration of wildfire in Oregon, said Nick Cronquist, spokesman for the team fighting the Jones Fire.

The recent blowup of the massive Chetco Bar Fire near Brookings, which has burned more than 100,000 acres, added to what has become a busy fire season. This weekend, firefighters braced for another wave of heat, which may prompt fires to flare up and expand.

“There is fire up and down the Cascades,” Cronquist said. “And the weather is just not cooperating for fighting fires.”

Hot and dry

Forest conditions on the western side of the Cascade Range have been out of the ordinary this year, Forrest Ownbey, a fire behavior analyst with the federal team managing the Jones Fire, said Thursday.

Summers in the mountains and foothills east of Eugene typically become hot and dry. But this year it has been particularly hot and dry.

An early August heat wave set record highs of 102 on Aug. 2 and 3 at the National Weather Service station at the Eugene Airport.

At the airport station, the average high for this month through Aug. 25 is 86.7, compared with a normal average of just under 83. In a normal August, the airport receives more than half an inch of rain. This August so far: 0.14 inches.

The last meaningful rainfall came in early June, Ownbey said, “so we are going like two months without rain, significant rain.”

The bottom line: The woods remain prime for fire.

Ownbey said it will take a couple of inches of rain to put out the fires burning in Oregon. That is likely to be weeks off still.

A normal September in Eugene delivers just 1.3 inches of rain, and heavy rainfall typically doesn’t start until October.

Fewer, but bigger

About 31,400 acres of the 1.5 million-acre Willamette National Forest have already burned this fire season, said Willamette spokeswoman Judith McHugh. Although statistics from recent fire seasons for the forest were not immediately available, she said fire officials informed her that this year’s tally is “considerably more” than in recent years.

The Willamette National Forest, based in Springfield, spent $36 million so far this year fighting wildfires. The size of the fires has pushed up the cost.

“This year we have had fewer fires, but the fires have been larger,” wrote Doug Johnson, a fire official with the Forest Service and BLM in Western Oregon. The forest stretches from the Cascade foothills to the crest of the Cascades.

Firefighters rushing to extinguish young blazes this year have found several acres burning rather than just one or two trees, McHugh said, so it has been difficult to keep fires small.

“Fires are especially difficult to put out completely when the largest downed trees are burning,” she wrote. “This year, the moisture level in those large logs is at historic lows.”

A tour Thursday of a portion of the Jones Fire showed how the costs of fighting fire can add up. Fire protective wrapping had been placed around historic buildings at the Clark Creek Organization Campground. Contract fire crews dug up and sprayed out hot spots. An airplane circled, giving fire manager an overhead view of the fire.

Costs for crews and equipment can vary, but Ballou, with the coordinating center in Portland, offered some numbers. A 20-person handcrew costs state and federal agencies about $10,000 per day. An average helicopter costs about $6,000 per day to have available and $1,800 per hour to have fly. And a typical load of fire retardant dropped from an air tanker costs about $20,000.

The Jones Fire has drawn about 650 firefighters from all around the country, including state and federal handcrews from Alaska. The Alaskan firefighters flew in on a chartered plane and are borrowing tools and trucks, said Mike Goyette, a fire management officer with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry.

“(In) the community of firefighters we go wherever we are needed,” he said.