Photo shows the eerie glow of the Garner Complex Fire in Merlin this July. Photo Provided
The 2018 fire season has been filled with challenges.
Through August, 839 fires have burned an estimated 69,600 acres on the nearly 16 million acres of lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) alone. Acres affected by wildfires on all jurisdictions in Oregon represent more than 748,000 acres to date in 2018.
Within our fire district, however, South Lane County Fire & Rescue (SLCF&R) Fire Chief John Wooten dubbed it an average fire season, as weather dried out and warmed up earlier than usual in 2018.
Outside the district, however, SLCF&R sent mutual aid responses to fires more than usual this fire season, he said. SLCF&R saw increase in state congregation responses for large, disastrous fires, and sent resources and personnel to seven conflagrations within the state of Oregon.
Most of those conflagration fires were caused by lightning, Wooten said. More than 44,000 acres burned on ODF protected lands have been attributed to 210 fires started by lightning.
Wooten noted a few notable fires fought this summer, starting with the Whitsell Mill fire in Saginaw in May. That fire, deemed accidental, destroyed the 169,000-square-foot mill building and spread to stacks of lumber products onsite, causing millions in damages.
SLCF&R spent five days deployed at the Whitsell Mill. Had that fire occurred in late July or early August, Wooten said, it may have been far worse than what it was.
Wooten also noted the Bryson Dowen/Sears Road fire brushfire in August, which had, ”Great potential to blow up, but with our mutual aid partners, including ODF, we were able to catch that fire and keep it small.” Crews were deployed for two days on that site.
There was also a major wildland fire in Dorena earlier this month, where three structures and several outbuildings and vehicles burned. The fire was contained at approximately 12 acres.
”The recent Dorena fire was not in our district; however, we do have fire protection agreements in the area to include the South Lane School District which – in addition to ODF’s mutual aid request – is why we assisted with that fire,” Wooten said.
August is considered the peak of fire season, but numbers showed a decrease in human-caused fires in comparison to the 10-year average.
That’s good news, but the number of human-caused fires still represents 75 percent of all ignitions.
In all, people were responsible for 138 wildfires, a 10-percent drop from the 10-year average of 153 this fire season.
Fires resulting from campfires were down 50 percent and vehicle related fires were down 40 percent from the average.
The largest drop came from illegal debris burning, where just two fires occurred compared to the 10-year average of 13. This represents a nearly 85-percent decrease.
Wooten said most of the fires within the district this season had a human component to them, but those numbers seesaw each year.
The numbers of human-caused fires go ”up and down from year-to-year, but my experience has been when we have back-to-back catastrophic seasons like we have had, people tend to be more cautious and mindful of the fire restrictions,” Wooten said.
”I’d like to think that people are starting to get it,” ODF Fire Prevention Coordinator Tom Fields said. ”Oregon is a beautiful place to live, but it does come with the risk of fire, especially from May through October. We are hopeful that the trend continues and that we can end 2018 on a high note. But we still have a long way to go.”
The leading culprits behind a number of these fires are those burning illegally, 99; drivers of poorly maintained vehicles, 57; and campers failing to properly extinguish campfires, 37. Other fire causes include power lines, mowing dry grass, fireworks and smoking. Nearly 60 wildfires are still under investigation.
SLCF&R has budgeted funds for fire prevention and education activities. You see those funds at work in the community during their Fire Prevention Week campaign in the schools; during the Movie Night at the Firehouse and Safety Fair that was just held in September; and several other events around the district, including disaster preparedness fairs, Wooten said.
Wooten is also responsible for determining the fire danger level within the district.
”While we do not necessarily regulate industries such as logging, we have adopted the ODF General Public Use Restrictions,” Wooten said. ”Oregon revised statutes grant the fire chief within a fire district or municipality the authority to determine the fire season restrictions. We work very closely with our partners at western and eastern Lane ODF to keep our fire danger levels in line with their changes where the public use restrictions are concerned.”
Fire season restrictions will continue to be in place until the district’s gotten enough rainfall to officially take us out of fire season, Wooten said
”Open burning remains prohibited, but we will make sure the information is posted to our web and Facebook pages when that changes,” he said. ”While we understand the restrictions can be inconvenient, they are there for the safety and welfare of the public.”