Emily Adair
The La Grande Observer
Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

National Guard soldiers deployed to aid with firefighting

Oregon National Guard currently has about 430 people working fire support across the state. Stephen Bomar, director of public affairs with the Oregon Military Department, said about half of that number is working the Chetco Bar Fire, and the other half is managing about 20 other fires around the state. An additional 250 Guard members are scheduled to be called out next week.

Bomar said ONG helicopters have been flying since the end of July and have dumped more than a million gallons of water on fires.

The Guard isn’t able to focus all of its energy on wildfires, however.

“We have about 250 service members with overseas missions, and we’re assisting here in Oregon and across the nation,” Bomar said.

He said members of the 125th Special Tactics Squadron were deployed to Texas to assist with search and rescue and air traffic control in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Those members have since returned and been deployed to Florida to provide similar services for victims of Hurricane Irma.

Although its members are currently deployed around the nation and overseas, the Oregon National Guard knows it can rely on out-of-state resources if necessary.

“If need be, we can make use of what’s called an emergency management systems contract, which lets us utilize other states’ National Guards just like what we’re doing in Florida,” Bomar said.

— Emily Adair, The Observer

Despite the lower-than-normal fire activity in Eastern Oregon, local officials are feeling a strain as they consider a possible change in conditions. The concern is due to the low visibility and limited resources resulting from major wildfires across the state.

“If we get too many more starts, we’re going to have our hands full,” said Jerry Garrett, assistant center manager for the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center in La Grande. “We’re not going to get much help from other areas (because those resources are busy) with other fires. What we have is what we have.”

Nathan Goodrich, fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s north zone, shared Garrett’s concern. He said if he needs an air tanker any time soon, he likely won’t get one.

“The system is tapped from Montana to (the Pacific Northwest),” Goodrich said.

Moreover, the local fire districts themselves may not be at full force should more fires occur in Eastern Oregon because they are providing assistance elsewhere.

The BMIDC works with multiple agencies in Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington, including the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Umatilla National Forest, Eagle Cap Wilderness, BLM and ODF. Garrett said there’s a Type I helicopter in California and an engine in the Lakeview District BLM area. The Union Interagency Hotshots crew is fighting the Eagle Creek Fire on Mt. Hood National Forest in the Columbia River Gorge, and the La Grande Hotshots are at the Chetco Fire on the Kalmiopsis Wilderness near Brookings.

Another challenge is that local tools are being allocated to other areas.

Goodrich said a helicopter detailed to the Wallowa-Whitman’s north zone was pulled and sent to the higher priority Eagle Creek Fire.

For the helicopters and planes that are still here, the smoke in the air is causing low visibility.

“Until the smoke clears, nothing is taking off,” Garrett said. “Helicopters might be able to, because they can fly with (slightly) lower visibility.”

Garrett estimated the visibility Thursday reached about a mile or a mile and a half. Usually, however, you’d be able to see “all the way to Elgin,” or about 15 to 20 miles.

“If you can see Mt. Emily, the visibility is fine,” he said. “If you look out your window and can’t see any mountains, it’s definitely too poor to fly.”

Eastern Oregon hasn’t been the epicenter of wildfire activity, but the National Weather Service’s forecast for Northeast Oregon is calling for lightning today and Saturday. Relative humidity earlier this week was just 6 percent at the Heaven’s Gate Lookout on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon.

“The canyon is prime and ready to burn,” Goodrich said.

Garrett said the BMIDC is preparing for the lightning by “buttoning up” some of the smaller fires they are managing.

“As the preparedness level rises, it gets tougher to expense stuff out,” he said. “We’re working on getting those shored up so we can bring those resources back and get them ready if we have any starts after the lightning.”

Both helicopter crews based in La Grande are home and available for new fire starts, Goodrich said, and the north zone has engines and hand crews available for initial attack, but will lose the rest of his college student employees within the next two weeks.

Fires like the Chetco Bar Fire burning in Southwest Oregon and the Lolo Peak Fire in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana are proving complicated to manage and costly. Goodrich said the long-term forecast calls for a warm, dry fall.

“These fires are going to be going on for a long time,” he said.

Right now, there are 140 outstanding crew orders, Goodrich said. A glance at the national wildland fire situation report has a long list of what he called UTFs — resource orders the federal government is Unable To Fill.

“There isn’t a helicopter manager in the entire system,” Goodrich said. “We are pretty stretched right now, and California’s season hasn’t started yet.”

Besides putting out small, local fires, Goodrich said some of his fire crew members have been sent off to bigger fires around the West. In June and July, he said, quite a few engines were sent to Arizona and single resources, like tree falling bosses, have found work on the West’s large project fires.

The forest also borrows crews from other regions. A fire crew from Arizona was stationed in Enterprise this August — in part for fear of fire starts during the solar eclipse and the increase use of Northeast Oregon’s public lands, but Goodrich said he brings in extra crews in August every year anyway when humidity is low, temperatures are high and lightning is always a possibility.

Northeast Oregon should be at the tail end of its lightning season and the shorter days and cooler nights decrease the risk of large fires, but fire seasons are becoming less predictable.

Garrett said the cold, wet winter has benefited Northeast Oregon.

“In terms of the number of starts (within the BMIDC), it’s below normal,” he said. “The number of acres are certainly below normal.”

The lack of rain in June and no rain in July, however, increased the fire danger early in the fire season, according to Goodrich.

Goodrich said fire management agencies are starting on what he called a new data set with lightning storms occurring later in the summer and the fire seasons are getting longer.

While fires burn all around and local crews are kept close waiting for fires to start Goodrich said the crews keep busy preparing prescribed burn areas, thinning overstocked forest stands, piling brush for winter burning, developing springs, dismantling old fence and building buck and rail fences.

Wallowa-Whitman crews have been busy the past two weeks putting out roughly 16 small fires. Goodrich credited having access to resources, like engines, hand crews and air support are why the fires didn’t grow bigger than 20 acres.

“We are caught up now, but things are crazy dry right now,” he said.