PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Oregon isn’t out of the woods yet, but the state says so far, crews have been “kicking butt” when it comes to tackling wildfires quickly.
As of Monday, Oregon Department of Forestry districts have suppressed 418 fires and held them to only burning 582 acres. The 10-year average for this point in the fire season is 590 acres and 56,121 acres burned.
“Although there is a possibility for holdover fires from the recent lightning to add fires to the map, ODF’s firefighters have been doing a remarkable job keeping them small,” Tim Holschbach, deputy chief of policy and planning for the Fire Protection Division, said in a news release.
Holschbach said that’s thanks to ODF being better staffed and better equipped in years passed.
The passage of Senate bill 762, which made major investments in wildfire prevention in Oregon, allocated funding to allow ODF to hire 128 more people in 2022 and to purchase firefighting aircraft that’s already making a difference when it comes to dousing flames quickly.
“There was an increase in some severity funds that’s allowed for additional aircraft such as the scooper planes up in The Dalles. I know earlier this year, they put out a fire really quickly that, without them there, I’m not sure how big that fire would have been,” said Levi Hopkins, ODF’s fire prevention and policy manager.
He said the biggest new asset so far has been the addition of a Next Generation Airtanker. ODF has also added several helicopters to its fleet.
ODF is using multi-mission aircraft for a third season, too. This aircraft uses thermal cameras that overlay heat information through an augmented reality mapping system, according to Jamie Knight, ODF state aviation operations specialist.
“Our dispatch centers around the state can see those maps and quickly send the best resources to attack the fire,” she said.
There are 27 aircraft on exclusive use contracts with the state of Oregon right now.
The planes and helicopters are placed strategically around the state and each fire district can request any available aircraft to assist them in putting out fires.
Hopkins said the state has also been strategically placing crews ahead of thunderstorms. This is what helped them tackle lightning-sparked wildfires in Central Oregon during the week of Aug. 8 and prevent them from spreading.
“We’re continually looking at where the the most severe or the high-risk areas are, depending on conditions,” he said.
That strategy will continue into September, which has been one of the worst months for Oregon wildfires in recent history, as wildfire season has been stretching later into the summer.
Hopkins said ODF made sure to hire seasonal employees who could work the entire fire season and who would be able to respond to fires throughout September.
“Our most valuable asset is our people. They live and work in communities they protect, and they have been doing a great job this fire season,” Holschbach said.
Hopkins also thanks the people of Oregon for doing their part this fire season. He said human caused fires are much lower than ODF’s 10-year average and that’s kept ODF crews free to focus on fire prevention and responding to naturally-caused fires.
ODF said $25 million from SB 762 was allocated for fire mitigation. Of that, $5 million focused on small woodland owners and the other $20 million went toward fuels reduction treatments in communities at high- or extreme-risk of encountering wildfire. The money was meant to help create fuel breaks around the communities.