With wildfire on the tip of everyone’s tongues, how does the county avoid another Tillamook Burn?
By Brian Cameron
Tillamook County has many resources ready to combat the threat of wildfires and the public has recently become much more interested in their capabilities and methodologies.
“I think what’s happening down in Brookings with the Chetco Bar fire and the recent flare ups along the Columbia River Gorge is that they’re acting as a catalyst to get folks in Portland and the valley to take a closer look,” said Ed Wallmark, Protection Unit Forester for the Tillamook District of the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF).
Wallmark was making reference to both the Chetco Bar fire which is still uncontained and continuing to grow, as well as the more recent Eagle Creek Fire which originated with illicit usage of fireworks in one of Oregon’s most scenic and visited natural areas, taking with the flames the Oneonta tunnel and countless picturesque settings of waterfalls, impressively sized trees and protected flora and fauna, even going so far as to cause a level-one evacuation warning of Troutdale, Gresham and other areas of the greater Portland metropolitan environment, at one point the fire even jumped the lengthy distance over the Columbia River and created a spot-fire in southern Washington.
Tillamook has a robust resource when it comes to fighting wildfire. More often than not, the first on the scene of a Tillamook area wildfire is statistically going to be rural or city resources – considered crucial to the initial attack of a wildfire, the rural and city fire departments can communicate the nature of the blaze back to dispatch, who then will call out to ODF’s fire protection crew.
“The rural units play a big role in the firefighting process,” said Kevin Hill, Wildland Fire Supervisor with the Tillamook ODF Protection Unit. “They are more often than not the first units on the scene but they are important to the process because the biggest job on our end is getting resources to the fire.”
Hill mentioned that the structure fire departments are getting more in tune with the tools, processes and procedures associated with wildland firefighting and that helps them be much more effective when they first arrive on the scene of an incident.
When ODF makes it on scene, the strategies for tackling a blaze are varied in relation to factors like topography, current and potential meteorological readings, as well as directional slopes of hillsides, the types of foliage on the ground and the amount of burnable fuels that may litter the forest floor. They can utilize the fire engine’s initial attack equipment to directly battle the flamefront, work with ground crews to work a line of control around the fire, or in some cases simply act as a contingency resources in the event the fire crosses any firebreak that may be set up.
Why we fight
Many have wondered recently, due to the events in other parts of Oregon, if a lack of consistent forest practices may have led to an unusually active fire season. According to Hill there are many factors that play into a season being unusually active but he noted that the methodologies differ between how the State fights forest fires compared to federal forest services.
When it boils down to it the State of Oregon relies on timber revenue more than the federal forest service, naturally a higher incentive to extinguish the blaze is tantamount. However if you’re a landowning agency that isn’t as concerned with available timber board-feet as much as maintaining a healthy and varied forest then the notion of fire isn’t as dangerous as it would be for other entities.
It’s through practice differences such as this that can lead to issues like the Chetco Bar fire which wasn’t immediately suppressed but instead was allowed to grow – and grow it did. At last estimate, the Chetco Bar fire is approximately 180,000 acres.
According to Hill, however, the fuel types between southern Oregon and the Tillamook area are substantially different.
“Tillamook is a fairly wet area but we do tend to see some pretty hot and dry conditions, especially in the summer,” said Hill. “Thankfully this year we’ve had a low number of serious fires, which has allowed the crews to go off district to help out other areas of the state who are in more serious conditions.”
Hill mentioned that this season the Tillamook area has moved into “high” fire danger, which comes with it a number of restrictions and stipulations but also mentioned that he feels some of the effort of the Fire Prevention program and its outreach toward youth and recreation has had a lot to do with less incidents as well.
“The prevention program and the Industrial Fire Precaution Level (IFPL) have both worked well to inform forest-users of the inherent seasonal conditions,” said Hill. “But everyone should be extra careful in conditions like what we’ve had recently.”