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Fire and Smoke: Outgunned at the start

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Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a five-day series on devastating wildfires and their effects on Southern Oregon done in partnership with KTVL Channel 10. See Part 1 here.

When a lightning storm started at least 145 fires on July 15 in Southern Oregon, firefighters weren’t just battling the blazes — they were trying to strike a balance between sharing critical resources and competing for the ground forces, air tankers and helicopters they all needed.

During the first 48 hours after the lightning storm, firefighters snuffed out most of the fires during initial attack operations.

But with so many fire starts on one day, some blazes escaped initial attack efforts and grew into large-scale wildfires that filled the summer sky with smoke.

“When initial attack is overwhelmed, some will get out of control,” says Dave Larson, southwest Oregon district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

ODF’s goal is to suppress 98 percent of fires at 10 acres or less. That not only protects lives, homes and trees, it reduces firefighting costs.

The state agency protects private forestland as well as U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.

Larson said ODF, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service share the same philosophy and work closely to battle fires that know no boundaries.

“Our common goal was all the same. We want to hit the fires as quick as we can, put them out as small as we can and do it as safe as we can,” Larson says.

The fires that did escape control have strained agency budgets.

ODF has spent $60 million on southwest Oregon fires, Larson says.

The Forest Service has spent more than three times that in the area — $200 million, says Merv George, forest supervisor for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

The largest local fire, the Klondike fire southwest of Grants Pass, has surpassed 167,000 acres. It merged this summer with the almost 53,000-acre Taylor Creek fire, creating a 220,000-acre mega-fire.

The Klondike fire is burning in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, a known trouble spot for firefighting that was home to the nearly 500,000-acre Biscuit fire in 2002 and the 191,125-acre Chetco Bar fire last year.

When resources are stretched thin, firefighters tackle the flames closest to people and homes. Remote fires in places like the Kalmiopsis Wilderness aren’t a priority, especially during initial attack operations.

George says knowing the area is prone to massive, long-duration wildfires, he sent smokejumpers in to fight the Klondike fire on the same day it was sparked by the July 15 lightning storm. They fought to contain the fire for three days straight.

“But when we asked for air support with fire retardant to give them some assistance, unfortunately the rest of Southern Oregon was on fire at the same time and we couldn’t get any air support,” George says. “So in order to keep those people alive and keep them safe, we had to get them out of there.”

Marked by steep, rugged terrain, the Kalmiopsis lacks good access points to evacuate firefighters.

“We just did not have enough firefighters and enough resources to be able to put all of our fires out that we had on July 15,” George says.

Some officials say having more boots on the ground, managers and dedicated air support that can’t be shifted to other parts of the country would boost their chances of success when it comes to initial attack.

“Having more dedicated resources to stay here would definitely be helpful,” George says.

Preparing for battle

By mid-July, the Rogue Valley had suffered through a string of dry, hot days and forest fuels had dried out.

“Everything all lined up to really have that perfect storm,” Larson says.

The Forest Service was prepping for the battle ahead. The agency requested $300,000 in “severity funding” to get resources in place before wildfires struck. The Medford Air Tanker Base was fully staffed and opened its Very Large Air Tanker facilities early, readying for the converted commercial jets that can drop more than 10,000 gallons of fire retardant at a time, officials say.

With lightning in the forecast, the Forest Service brought in 150 more people to help on wildfires, George says.

“Had we not brought in those extra 150 employees to come in from all over to help with initial attack, we would have been talking about a lot more fires at this point,” he says.

The Forest Service had engines, smokejumpers, a hotshot crew, other ground crews and helicopters at the ready, then ordered more when it saw the scale of the 3,000-strike lightning storm, officials say.

In the first days of the fire starts, the agency set up a staging area at the J. Herbert Stone Nursery outside Central Point, stocking it with fire engines and other equipment, says Eric Hensel, fire and aviation staff officer for the Forest Service.

All day long, incoming equipment was being sent out to local fires.

“That staging area was empty every night. We would order more stuff to fill it,” Hensel says.

ODF was also marshaling resources, including air tankers, helicopters and planes, officials say.

Larson says he snatched up 13 helicopters with tanks. Some firefighting resources were still in the area from the 38,000-acre Klamathon fire that started across the border in California in early July.

“We gathered those resources knowing we were going into quite a fight,” Larson says. “A lot of folks didn’t see that going on behind the scenes. It wasn’t that I was just grabbing all the toys for myself. We knew we were going to have to share those on joint jurisdiction fires across the landscape.”

Nationwide competition

When wildfire risk is highest and the country goes into National Preparedness Level 5, Southern Oregon has to compete with other regions for firefighting resources. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, divvies up those resources, Larson says.

“I understand there’s a lot of need to move those around and they want to set those priorities, but I have priorities as well,” he says.

George says the Rogue Valley is more sparsely populated than many other parts of the country. It loses out in the national competition for limited firefighting resources.

“We live in an area that’s beautiful. It’s got more trees than people. And that comes to haunt you when you’re in a competition for resources,” he says. “When you’re in planning Level 5, that means the entire country is on fire. And the resources that you have — meaning helicopters, meaning air tankers, meaning hand crews, hot shot crews — all are going to go to those places where there’s more people than trees.”

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer says he backs efforts to boost the amount of initial attack equipment and have some of those firefighting resources assigned to Southern Oregon so they can’t be diverted elsewhere.

Other efforts to cut back on wildfires and smoke, such as forest thinning, are critically important but will take years to implement, he says.

Shoring up initial attack capabilities with dedicated resources could stop more fires from growing into blazes that burn thousands of acres, Dyer says.

“That’s the one thing I’ve identified that could have some mitigating impact quickly,” he says.

While sharing resources nationwide can leave some regions short of everything they need or want, the upside of pooling resources is that help can come from far away.

“To date, we’ve had over 10,000 employees from around the country come to keep our communities safe,” George says.

National firefighting resources have flowed into the Rogue Valley from places as far flung as Alaska and Florida this summer.

“When you get a lot of fires, that draws on the system,” Hensel says. “Everyone has to help their neighbors. If we don’t help them, we can’t expect them to help us.”

Officials from local ODF, BLM and Forest Service offices say they all aided each other this fire season.

With multiple wildfires raging across Southern Oregon, managers of the local fires loaned resources to each other, says Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons.

Hensel says the managers of the large-scale wildfires also cooperated to stop the spread of new fires that broke out after the July 15 lightning storm.

“Initial attack is the number one priority. If they have a large wildfire on the landscape, they know they have to keep any others from being established. They’ll let us borrow resources,” he says.

George says the hard work and dedication of firefighters, coupled with support from the community, stopped the fire season from being even worse.

He says everyone needs to come together on a multi-pronged approach that ranges from ramping up initial attack capabilities to thinning overstocked forests.

“Nobody wants to see a summer full of smoke,” he says.

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

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The Taylor Creek fire was one of 145 started by lightning July 15, overwhelming firefighting resources.{ }