Dry conditions force Fire School to go smokeless

Sean C. Morgan

Unseasonable three-digit temperatures, red-flag warnings and dry fuels have prompted an early declaration of fire season and use restrictions in the woodlands surrounding Sweet Home.

Conditions are so ripe for combustion that officials decided not to light fires for the annual Sweet Home Fire School held here last week for the first time in the 19-year history of the program. Normally, on Friday of Fire School, new firefighters go out and fight controlled live fires on timber property managed by Cascade Timber Consulting.

For extreme heat and the threat of abundant lightning, a red flag warning was in effect from 11 a.m. on Friday to 11 a.m. on Sunday, said Neil Miller, Oregon Department of Forestry Sweet Home Unit forest protection supervisor.

“It’s dryness you don’t usually see until the first of August,” Miller said. Fire season and regulated use in the Quartzville Corridor don’t usually start till around the Fourth of July.

“We’re pretty critical,” Miller said.

In preparation for what could be a severe fire season, the Sweet Home Unit has three extra firefighters this year, Miller said.

The Sweet Home Unit, which protects much of the land directly around Sweet Home, has had minimal problems so far this year.

“I think people are recognizing it’s hot and dry,” Miller said.

The media and fire officials have been on top of getting the word out, said Forest Protection Supervisor Chad Calderwood. “People just need to be cautious when they’re out and about.”

An excessive heat warning was in effect Saturday for the

Willamette Valley and north-central Oregon, with warnings of “optimum conditions” for ignition and growth of large, costly fires across much of the geographic area through Monday before conditions “moderate during the new week.”

Up the hill in the Sweet Home Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest, a low snowpack has led to early fire danger.

“At this point, we’re at moderate,” said Stefanie Gatchell of the Sweet Home Ranger District. The Industrial Fire Precaution Level was at II, although no public use restrictions were in place as of Friday.

“It is definitely hotter,” Gatchell said. “It’s drier than normal. The conditions are drier than normal for this time of year.”

Trish Hogervorst, public affairs specialist with the BLM, said conditions are more like late July or early August. Going over the pass recently, she didn’t see any snow at a time hikers on the pass should still expect to see snow.

Fire crews are on and ready to respond to wildland fires after completing the interagency fire school Friday afternoon.

Statewide, going into this week the biggest fire in Oregon was the Sugar Loaf Fire burning in grass and timber in central Oregon on BLM land nine miles north of Dayville in Grant County. It was estimated at 5,500 acres and had forced evacuation of residences in the area and burned one outbuilding.

The lightning-caused Buckskin Fire has burned 5,345 acres since June 11in an area 10 miles southwest of Cave Junction in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and was 60 percent contained Sunday.

The Bunker Hill Fire, also caused by lighting 30 miles southeast of Oakridge, was at 150 acres and zero percent contained.

The U.S. Forest Service reported that firefighters were responding at least a dozen, mostly small, fires from Friday evening’s lightning storm. Most were either a single burning tree or are less than half an acre in size.

Approximately 20 smokes were reported at various locations throughout the forest, according to spokeswoman Judith McHugh.

“This kicks off our fire season, and we’re ready,” said USFS Fire Staff Officer Sean Stafford. “We are reminding folks that fireworks are illegal on all National Forest system lands. “Visitors are encouraged to use caution in areas where firefighters are actively working. There were no closures or public use restrictions in place as this week began, but fire officials urged visitors to attention to fire danger levels and, as always, be careful with campfires.

At the Fire School, some 85 new firefighters completed their Level One certification; 70 crew leaders completed Level Two; and 40 completed training as division supervisors.

Camped out on the Sweet Home High School’s fields, firefighters attended classes Monday through Thursday before heading off to CTC-managed property off McDowell Creek Road for live exercises, cutting fire lines and running hose in preparation for the real thing this summer.

Locally, the Sweet Home Unit welcomed eight new personnel to its fire crew, including Victor Stupin, Katie Virtue and Justin Wolfe, all of Sweet Home along with Brandon Whaley of Albany, Dylan Gould of Corvallis and Johnathan Fisher of Halsey. Valerie McClain is the new dispatcher, and Shane Ruddell is the new mechanic and bulldozer driver.

Stupin is a 2013 graduate of Sweet Home High School. He attends Linn-Benton Community College where he is studying computer science.

Virtue is a 2014 graduate attending Oregon Institute of Technology and studying medical imaging. She also plays college softball.

Wolfe graduated this year and plans to study forest management and start college at LBCC in the fall.

All three completed Fire School on Friday before joining their crew at the Sweet Home Unit.

Virtue said her family has always been involved in the fire service, and she is just following the tradition.

Wolfe said fighting fires “seems like fun and a great way to pay off tuition fees or get a head start on them.”

He said he’s looking forward to the fire season, saving wildlife and timber – one of the key reasons for fighting fire.

As a future forest manager, he doesn’t look forward to fire and the damage it causes to timber, but as a firefighter, he’s looking forward to getting to work, he said.

Stupin, a former high school swimmer, said that a buddy told him fighting fire was a great summer job. It gives him a chance to explore the local area too, he said. Although he spent 10 years here, he barely knows the side roads around Sweet Home.

“It’s hard work,” he said. “It’s manual labor for the most part, but you’re outside, swinging tools most of the time.”