US and Northwest push limits on firefighting resources: ‘worst possible conditions’ | state

PORTLAND – US Forest Service leaders received a message from their top boss on Wednesday.

Chief Vicki Christiansen, the head of the agency, announced that all Forest Service workers should immediately refocus their time and energy to deal with the worsening forest fire season in the country.

The fires were resisting control efforts, she said, and the West was bracing for more extreme weather conditions in the months to come.

“We expect that the demand for resources will exceed the availability of resources, and our workforce remains fatigued and in need of recovery from last year’s record fire season, an active hurricane season and storm surges. relentless efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, ”Christiansen said. in the letter.

It came on the same day that authorities in the North West stepped up their forest fire preparedness to the highest level, reporting that they were using almost all of their available firefighting resources.

The National Multi-Agency Coordination Group followed suit with a national declaration hours later.

The parallel moves marked the earliest in more than 10 years that the country had reached its Level 5 readiness designation – and the earliest the Northwest had been raised to that level in at least 15 years.

A level 5 federal designation means that more than 80% of the country’s firefighters are used as officials from different regions compete for national resources.

By the time Level 5 readiness went into effect, the Bootleg fire in southern Oregon had been the largest wildfire in the United States for two days, and those responsible for the northwest fires had already dispatched 5,700 firefighters and other personnel to nine large, uncontrolled fires covering more than 388,000 acres. across Oregon and Washington.

A year ago at the same time, 256 firefighters were dispatched to forest fires across the region. About 9,000 acres had burned.

The area burned in 2021 is more than five times the 10-year average for this time of year. It is also the highest number of hectares burned in mid-July since 2012.

In other words: The forest fire season in the Northwest has started badly and regional fire managers need help – immediately.

“(The Northwest) is in a drought, we haven’t had any significant rain in the area, and we’ve had record heat, and all the worst possible conditions at one point,” said Suzanne Flory, regional spokesperson for the Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management. “And we are not alone.

About 338,000 acres are burning in the northern Rocky Mountains. More than 170,000 acres are on fire in California. A total of 59 large, uncontrolled fires are raging in the West.

Simultaneous wildfires, like those seen this summer, are prompting fire managers to start “sorting out” and making tough decisions about where to allocate a dwindling amount of resources, Flory said.

“Of course someone is going to be concerned about every fire, and we recognize that,” she told The Oregonian / OregonLive. “But can it be fought safely? And do we have the right resources to fight this fire effectively? “

Wildfires have no respect for state borders, county borders or agency jurisdictions. And when a wildfire breaks out in Oregon, it’s a team effort to respond as quickly as possible.

The initial attack is often the largest, so all firefighters in the area – from federal forces to local forces – will come and help.

Subsequently, the remaining response is carried out by the agency in charge of the field. But if that agency runs out of resources, state or federal firefighting teams can be mobilized to help.

Governor Kate Brown, for example, can sign an executive order allowing Oregon agencies to participate in the response. The Portland-based Northwest Interagency Coordination Center can also dispatch federal fire teams.

The largest pool of firefighters available to Oregon managers is made up of federally trained contractors hired specifically to fight fires in Oregon, said Jim Gersbach, spokesperson for the Department of Forests in the ‘Oregon.

These 308 crews, or a total of 4,860, are available for missions throughout the state. The forestry department was using about 11% of those contract teams on Wednesday, in addition to the agency’s 550 forest firefighting specialists and forestry officers, Gersbach said.

This leaves the remaining contract teams available to respond to new fires that arise – or help fight existing fires as needed.

However, some resources are already exhausted.

The Forestry Department has three incident management teams, which lead the response to major fires raging on state lands, or assist with other major fires.

In a typical fire season, one team will be deployed to a fire, one will remain on duty, and the third will rest. But right now, all three teams are working on the Bootleg, Grandview and Elbow Creek fires.

“So if there was to be another fire, I mean, then we would have all three of them deployed and there is no fourth team,” Gersbach said on Wednesday, when only two teams were on duty. .

The third team was dispatched to the Elbow Creek fire on Friday after reaching 9,000 acres in northeast Oregon.

WHERE THE NORTHWEST TURNS FOR HELP

So who is bailing out the federal government when the federal government is supposed to bail out the states?

Other states, even other countries.

Responsibility is initially assumed by a Northwest Pact, with regions surrounding Oregon and Washington offering their resources, in the event that both states run out. Northern California and neighboring Canadian provinces are looking at their own resources to see what they can spare.

For example: The California Emergency Services Office on Friday dispatched 40 fire crews and fire trucks to help fight the Bootleg fire.

“We can call them up and say, ‘If you come here, we’ll pay your people to fight for us here,’ then we can return the favor someday, you know, when they’re really busy if we don’t. we’re not that busy, ”said Robin Demario, spokesperson for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

After fire managers have already turned to regional partners, they are turning to teams in states that don’t typically experience major wildfire seasons, like those on the east coast, Gersbach said. These resources are distributed by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise in different regions as needed.

The Northern Rocky Mountain region – Montana, Yellowstone National Park and parts of northern Idaho and North Dakota – is currently high on that priority list, according to Demario. The Northwest is just behind.

Once local, state, regional and federal resources are depleted, Mexico and countries in the southern hemisphere can send aid as well, Gersbach said.

Firefighters from New Zealand and Australia are known to help the North West because their countries experience winter during the northern hemisphere summer.

The call for firefighters also extends beyond those who physically fight fires. It includes those who are often missing during a shortage: middle managers or people operating the main fire bases.

“I think people forget it’s more than the fire department,” Flory said. “Do we have enough caterers across the country right now? We do, but what if we continue to have this kind of extreme wildfire activity in different areas? You know, shower stalls, all those kinds of things come into play.

Oregon fire managers are also available to members of the State National Guard – some of whom have previously been on-call to help direct traffic and assist in less intensive firefighting operations.

HAZARDOUS CONDITIONS PERSIST

Rising temperatures and dry conditions brought on by climate change continue to remove moisture from the landscape, resulting in the worst drought in Oregon history. And droughts affecting the West create a powder keg for potential lightning strikes that can leave embers smoldering for weeks before starting a fire.

The conditions of the 241,496-acre Bootleg blaze were so dangerous that fire officials took the unusual step of removing crews from their line for five consecutive days, said Holly Krake, spokesperson for operations at the Bootleg Friday. ‘fire.

Almost 2,000 people are in charge of the blaze, which created clouds large enough to create their own weather – spewing out what are essentially tornadoes of fire. The fire is contained at 7%.

“While we were able to secure the resources we need, we also know that there is a finite number in the system available,” Krake said. “And there is no end in sight for the weather and extreme conditions of the Bootleg fire.”

In addition to the Bootleg and Elbow Creek fires, Oregon firefighters are battling two other large, uncontrolled fires.

Jack’s fire consumed 15,248 acres in the Umpqua National Forest and is 27% contained. The Grandview fire northeast of Sisters, meanwhile, reached 5,971 acres and is 14% contained.

“Hopefully it’s a bad year out of the blue,” said Flory. “But I will tell you that the Forest Service is considering the possibility of this being the new standard.”


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