No surprise: Wildfire season could be bad

Firefighters across Curry County and throughout Oregon are bracing for an intense and explosive wildfire season, with the human element a key concern.

Coos Forest Protection Association district specialist Jeff Chase said this summer already has been a busy one for firefighters.

“We’ve had about 25 fire calls this month alone,” he said. “Half of those calls turned out to be false alarms, which is a good thing.”

Chase said many calls involve human-caused fires. “We are having issues with transient camps and fires,” he said. “The transients are a hard group to (get to) listen to fire-prevention messages.”

Added Chase, “We send a great deal of time trying to change human behavior. Many folks do not realize the amount of heat left in their campfire when they are done. You also get people that aren’t paying attention, and those that don’t believe anything bad can happen to them.”

Under Oregon law, said Chase, those found responsible for wildfires can face fines in the millions of dollars.

As Chase and other firefighters deal with the human element, they also are keeping a keen watch on natural conditions that could lead to wildfires, such as summer’s increasing heat waves, drying conditions, winds and lightning.

“We do get the winds off the coast, which always causes problems when it comes to putting fires out,” he said.

One of the key elements Chase watches is energy-release components. “That tells us the fire resistance to control,” he said. “The higher those numbers climb, the more resources are needed to put a fire out.”

That information, along with moisture levels, wind speed and direction, are monitored and released to fire agencies through the National Weather Service.

“Those numbers have been in the moderate level, but with the increasing drying and hot weather, those numbers will climb higher,” Chase said.

The Coos Forest Protection Association covers Coos, Curry and western Douglas counties, working in partnership with the Oregon Forestry Department, the Bureau of Land Management, and private and smaller landowners.

“It is a huge chunk of land,” he said. “A checkerboard of intermixed land, so we have multiple agreements to protect those lands.”

Mother Nature and topography also are challenges for the firefighters in southern Oregon and Curry County. “We do get lighting and those storms can spark wildfires,” Chase said. “We attempt to get those fires out as fast as we can.”

He said the region’s steep hills and bluffs, cliffs and thick timbered areas can be significant challenges.

“It can make this very interesting,” he said,” but there are ways to get in and around the buffs safely, and get to the fires and put them out.”

Chase said preparations began earlier this year with specialized wildfire training. “We completed our fire training in June with 35 new firefighters, so that gives us about 100 employees ready for the fire season.”

The Coos Forest Protection Association utilizes a variety of on-the-ground equipment and a contracted helicopter for initial attacks when wildfires break out. Larger planes with retardant can be called in from the state.

“Each day, we get a list from the state coordination center in Salem of what planes, helicopters and crews are available,” Chase said.

Meantime, said Chase, “Make sure you have a wide, defensible space surrounding your home. Keep yards mowed and water your yard when you can.”

Plus, keep your lawn trimmed. “The tall, dry grass can be dangerous,” he said. “The dry grass can burn with intensity and speed.”

For more information about wildfire prevention, visit the Coos Forest Protection Association’s website at coosfpa.net, of call 541-267-3161. For burning restrictions and closures, call 541-267-1789.

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