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Private landowners key to keeping ahead of summer fires

Nov 14, 2023 | News

When a forester arrives at work around 7 a.m. and the fire truck bay doors are open, they know it’s going to be a long day.

A lightning storm in the middle of a dry summer is a recipe for wildfires and that’s exactly what happened the early morning of Aug. 25, 2023. Oregon Department of Forestry, West Oregon District reported there were 11 fires in the area caused by lightning strikes. ODF West Oregon District protects 1 million acres and has only 10 fire engines at their disposal. That’s why private landowners and those contracted to work those lands are an important part of any firefighting effort.

Starker Forests forester Stephen Coskey, awakened by the lightning, arrived at his office at 4:40 a.m. to assess the situation. By 5:26 a.m. he had sent lighting strike maps to the rest of the Starker Forests’ staff. By 5:50 a.m. Coskey had discussed strategy with Jeff Minter, Starker Forests timber manager, also roused early by the flashes, and by 5:55 a.m. left the office to drive and check Starker Forests properties and surrounding areas for lighting strikes. At the third tree farm he visited, Coskey observed a tree struck by lightning.

Meanwhile, at his house at about 4 a.m., Starker Forests CEO Randy Hereford received a text from Lee Miller, president of Miller Timber Services, offering a crew from his office to assist if necessary.

“Lee is pretty quick to get hold of us and put his crews on notice,” Hereford said. “He’s a good neighbor, community member and always willing to step up.”

At 8:43 a.m. Coskey was back at the office to coordinate response with additional foresters.

Then, a call came in from a Weyerhaeuser forester on patrol who spotted smoke on what would become the Madsen’s Knob Fire. Mike Gassner, a longtime contract logger for Starker Forests, was in the area and went to work right away to open an access road for responders. Independent contractors are required to have their own fire equipment on hand in case of machine fire or spot fires in the area they work. Gassner was key in getting ahead of the situation. Several Starker Forests personnel arrived and helped cut a line around the fire with hand tools and chainsaws.

Another call came in asking for assistance on the Starr Creek Fire, where smoke could be seen but access was nonexistent. Starker staff split up. Some remained at Madson’s Knob to help mop up while others returned to the office to get additional equipment. With more staff and another fire truck, they headed to the Starr Creek Fire, where they joined a variety of other landowners and neighbors to work to control the fire.

Mike Shaw, Oregon Department of Forestry chief of fire protection, said in his report to the ODF board, that the key elements for success to fighting fires this year have been early detection, aggressive initial attack, and aggressive use of aircraft.

Over 24 hours, the dry lightning event in Oregon included 1,030 cloud to ground lightning strikes; 452 of those were on ODF protected land.

This was a dry lightning event predicted to take place west of the Cascades, which Shaw said is unusual. Over his 24-year career, he has never seen dry lightning from the California border to Washington west of the Cascades as it typically is accompanied by rain.

The South Mountain Fire in Benton County was on very difficult terrain Shaw said. However, it was caught at 12 acres. Which was amazing with everything else going on. Shaw credited the response of private landowners and a helicopter placed in the area ahead of events.

When it comes to hand crews and machinery, ODF relies heavily on the contractor and landowner community. They call this the complete and coordinated system, which is part of ODF’s core mission. It is unique to Oregon as no other state utilizes fire resources this way.

“They continually come to the table and bail us out,” Shaw said.

ODF cannot cover every place alone. During the Aug. 24 and Aug. 25 lighting strikes, Shaw said, there were fires that ODF never went to. Landowners were out there and put it out.

“And then we went out to make sure and got it cleaned up and got it into the system so we can track it from a statewide perspective,” he said. “That really is how the system works.”

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