Wildfire season slow to heat up

Photo credit | Oregon Department of Forestry

Compared to last year, this season has been a breeze. But fire danger is getting worse, fast.

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As of August 10, only 3,056 acres have burned in Oregon. At this time of year, that number is typically 25,000 acres — or more.

Jim Gersbach, Oregon Department of Forestry PIO, says thanks to a wetter-than-average spring says the fire season was delayed this year.

“But we’re well into it now,” Gersbach says. “All of our districts are not only in season but have raised the fire danger level from high to extreme. It might have been delayed, but it hasn’t taken us long to get into extreme levels.”

High temperatures and nearly two months without rain equal higher risk, he says. Human beings are also at fault. The average number of human-caused fires by this time of year typically hovers around 390. So far 481 fires can be attributed to humans. More people in high-risk areas increase the occurrence of fires, says Gersbach.

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Gersbach says when a fire is first reported, ODF goes all out to contain the burn.

“Our goal is to have them all out if we can before it reaches 10 acres,” Gersbach says.

The success rate is in the high 90s, he says.

“That’s going to become more difficult as we get further into the summer, and we see fires that spread rapidly in dry conditions,” he says. “But that’s quite a remarkable achievement so far this year.”

Although the department expects the season to heat up, Gersbach says they’re in a good staffing and funding position.

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Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency for wildfires across Oregon Aug. 2. The designation mobilized National Guard and provided the ODF with what it needed most: helicopters.

ODF partners with private contractors for helicopter use, but with so many fires in the region, aircraft availability is at a premium. ODF borrowed two Chinook helicopters for the season.

The department supplements staff with seasonal workers and private contractors. The regional prisons provide inmate crews to come in and “mop up” after a fire or tackle fire prevention tasks like clearing dry brush.

All of this is paid for by a $48 million base fund from the state’s general fund. Gersbach says there is an extra $5 million tucked away in case of an emergency.

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The state also has an insurance policy for wildfires. There’s a $50 million deductible before a claim of up to $25 million can be submitted, but the deductible is shared between the state and the Oregon Forest Land Protection Fund.

The policy helped mitigate the cost of the 2015 Stouts Creek fire, which burned more than 26,000 acres in a month. That single fire cost $37 million. The 10-year average cost per season is only $22.3 million.

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Gersbach says being able to renew that policy despite making a claim in recent years is not a small accomplishment.

“It was kind of a vote of confidence [in our fire fighting techniques] that our insurer renewed our policy even after we had three very severe fire seasons,” Gersbach says. “My understanding is you will not find that in many states.”