County considers its own air support

Southern Oregon was the site of a real-life experiment on whether having two large-capacity helicopters here could help stamp out blazes before they grow into wildfires that fill the summer sky with smoke.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners is looking into whether it makes sense to pay $2 million to have two Type 1 helicopters stationed in southwest Oregon during fire season. They may ask the Oregon Legislature to provide funding to cover the contracts.

By chance, two Type 1 helicopters were available at the Ashland airport when a lightning storm swept across Southern Oregon July 15, sparking more than 145 fires.

The helicopters, which can dump thousands of gallons of water or retardant, were still in the area after working on the Klamathon fire, which broke out in Northern California in early July.

“Without a doubt they had a great impact,” said Dave Larson, Southwest Oregon District forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “We typically would not have had those two Type 1 helicopters available for initial attack within minutes of receiving the report of the fires.”

Larson said it’s hard to quantify the impact the large-capacity helicopters had during initial attack operations on the fire starts across Southern Oregon. Many fires were stamped out by ground crews, helicopters and air tankers before they grew large enough to be assigned names and become known by the general public.

“But without a doubt, if we didn’t have those helicopters available to us, there would be a lot more fires out there that we would know the names of today,” Larson said.

During fire season, fire managers here must compete for resources with fire managers working on other wildfires across the nation.

Paying to have two Type 1 helicopters stationed in Southern Oregon for the fire season would prevent those helicopters from being sent elsewhere.

To put the $2 million cost in perspective, ODF spent about $60 million on southwest Oregon fires this season, Larson said.

ODF will get some of that money back because of payments from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said.

ODF is responsible for protecting private forest lands and has contracts to fight fires on BLM land.

The U.S. Forest Service has spent more than $200 million in southwest Oregon this season.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said firefighting costs are only part of the damage caused by wildfires. He said local communities are suffering widespread economic losses and health impacts.

Smoke aggravates conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and long-term exposure can increase lung cancer risk, according to local doctors.

Before lobbying for $2 million in funding for the bigger helicopters, Larson said an analysis of the past 15 fire seasons should be done to determine how much they would have helped.

A different mix of aircraft could be more effective for a similar cost — such as one Type 1 helicopter mixed with three Type 2 helicopters that carry hundreds of gallons of water, he said.

“If I’m going to spend taxpayers’ money, I want to make sure I’m paying for the right tool,” Larson said.

If the state paid the costs of the added helicopters assigned to Southern Oregon, Larson said, it might be able to recoup some of the costs by lending out the aircraft to fight wildfires on Forest Service land.

The message to the Forest Service could be, “You can borrow it, but if I need it, I’m going to take it back,” he said.

The largest fire complex in Oregon is the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires west of Grants Pass, which merged and together burned more than 228,000 acres — mainly on Forest Service land in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.

According to fireaviation.com, a source for news on airborne firefighting, Type 1 helicopters can be extremely effective in assisting firefighters on the ground if they are pre-positioned in order to be available for initial attack.

During extended attacks on fires, help from the helicopters can allow firefighters to work closer to a fire’s edge, fireaviation.com says.

Without the helicopters, fires can escape initial attack and grow larger, the website reports.

On July 15, aircraft were flying nonstop missions out of the Medford Air Tanker Base.

But with so many fire starts on the same day, initial attack resources were overwhelmed and there weren’t enough ground crews and air support to mount aggressive, sustained attacks on all fires.

The Forest Service launched smokejumpers against the Klondike fire during the first three days of the blaze but had to pull them back because it couldn’t get air tanker backup to help keep them safe, agency officials said.

Although the Klondike fire started in the rugged, remote Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area — the site of repeated mega-fires — agency officials said they had to concentrate initial attacks on areas closest to communities in order to save lives and homes.

As the discussion over large-capacity helicopters continues, Larson said he has developed a wish-list of other resources that would help ODF.

Firefighting agencies used to rely heavily on college-age people to fill their summer ranks, but these days workers are looking for longer-term work. Larson would like the work season extended, with summer crews put to work on forest thinning projects during the fire off-season.

ODF needs to build its ranks of supervisors with people who have years of experience who can lead crews into battle, he said.

An added dozer would help crews working to build fire lines, especially during the critical initial attack phase when fires can be stamped out early, Larson said.

With back-to-back bad fire seasons, he said fire managers and officials need to ask themselves what is working, what’s not working and what can be done better.

“We need to look at solutions that are going to benefit the citizens of Oregon and especially here in the Rogue Valley who’ve had to live through that smoke,” Larson said.

On the national front, U.S. senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, are leading a bipartisan group in advocating for modernization of firefighting aviation resources.

The senators said the nation relies on retired military and civilian planes that have been repurposed into air tankers flown by private contract firms. A squadron of modern large air tankers and water-scoopers is needed, nine senators said in a letter sent to the Forest Service and the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also signed onto the letter.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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