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Firefighters prepare for another busy season

Firefighters train last year at an interagency fire school in Sweet Home. (Oregon Department of Forestry)
By Oregon Department of Forestry, Friday, May 4, 2018

With smoke from the 2017 wildfires still fresh in the minds of Oregonians, the Oregon Department of Forestry has begun gearing up for this summer’s inevitable wildfires.

A lot of preparation goes on behind the scenes each winter and spring, said Blake Ellis, the agency’s interim fire operations manager.

“We work to ensure firefighters are equipped and ready to respond quickly and effectively to wildfires all year, with a special emphasis on being staffed and ready for the drier months,” Ellis said. “We essentially double our firefighting forces going into the summer, when wildfire risk is highest.”

Readiness activities include ensuring contracts for equipment, aircraft and other resources have been signed and hundreds of miles of fire hose have been cleaned and rolled, ready for use statewide.

A new policy governing use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles or drones has been adopted. These systems will support fire protection and natural resource management.

Hiring of seasonal firefighters is under way. New firefighters will attend training at ODF and interagency fire schools across the state in June.

Permanent and returning firefighters will take fire line refresher training over the next two months.

Last year, ODF had great success testing out infrared technology, the agency says. Carried on aerial vehicles, the equipment saw through heavy smoke on two Oregon wildfires – Horse Prairie and Eagle Creek.

The technology provided sharp images and real-time fire mapping for fire managers, boosting safety and tactical planning, according to the agency.

“From detection to fire-mapping and active wildfire suppression, aircraft continue to play a critical role in the fight to save lives, resources and property,” said Neal Laugle, ODF’s aviation manager.

Contracted aircraft flew 1,477 hours on firefighting missions for ODF last year, more than 100 hours above average, he said. The agency has contracted the same number of aircraft for 2018 as last year.

“We have 27 aircraft based across the state, including helicopters, fixed-wing detection planes, single-engine air tankers and a large air tanker, all of which we’ve secured for our exclusive use,” Laugle said. “We also have call-when-needed agreements with a number of companies for additional firefighting aircraft.”

Among these agreements is use of a 747 modified to carry 19,000 gallons of retardant.

ODF will continue to have access to aviation resources from other states and federal agencies upon request.

“Uncontrolled fires can be devastating,” Ellis said. “Relationships with our partners are invaluable to support prevention and suppression efforts statewide.”

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