Last month's Game Hog Creek Fire, located 22 miles northwest of Forest Grove, burned just under 200 acres in a three-week span.
But while relatively harmless by wildfire standards — it did not grow explosively, and it burned in a remote and unpopulated area — its presence, coupled with Oregon's tragic fires over the past 11 months, has raised awareness of the dangers of these natural disasters, along with appreciation for firefighting work and the people who do it.
Dave Luttrell, who has spent 26 years working for the Oregon Department of Forestry fighting fires and who presently runs the South Fork prison camp nestled in the middle of the Tillamook State Forest, is keenly aware of the complexities that come with wildfires. They can start quick, move quicker, and regardless of the experience of those fighting them, they can be very dangerous.
"You have to be concerned with safety first and foremost, because people die," Luttrell said bluntly. "We don't lose too many people, thankfully, but while we have safety officers on crews, we basically say everybody on the fire is a safety officer and tell them that if there's something they're not comfortable with, we encourage them to say something."
Those crews often come from everywhere. The Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon — which has burned more than 400,000 acres since igniting more than a month ago — boasts more than 2,000 firefighters. Like many Oregon wildfire responses, many of those battling the fire work for the Department of Forestry. They also get a crucial assist from contractors, an oft-underappreciated component of wildfire response.
Brandon Knox, who lives in Bend, flies helicopters for Leading Edge Aviation. Knox spends half of his year fighting fires. He was based in Chiloquin and working the area when he and his spotter laid eyes on what would become the Bootleg Fire. As per protocol, they flew over and assessed the scene before calling it in. As they did, and as they waited for a response, they witnessed the just how quickly wildfires can progress.
"There wasn't any real water supply nearby, so we just circled it," Knox said. "When we initially got over the top of it, it was probably about a half-acre. Within an hour, it grew to 200 or 300 acres, and by the time we went back for the night, which would've been about six hours, it was close to 3,000 acres with 60-, 70-foot flames."
When he's on wildfire duty, Knox's job consists of scooping and dropping water, placing personnel in nearby locations, and helping those in charge eyeball the blaze from above. He normally works 10 days on, two days off, and typically 7 a.m. to midnight.
An average morning starts with a tour of the blaze with strategic personnel who are looking for the best angles of attack. Knox and his team will do that two to three times daily, providing vital intelligence to firefighters on the group. The remainder of his day will be spent doing pretty much everything else.
While he's now based in Oregon, Knox estimates he's worked in more than a dozen states, and he's been doing so for more than a decade.
And just because he's not on the ground doesn't mean his job isn't dangerous. Knox and other pilots on wildfire response have smoke, heat, varying altitudes, wind and trees to deal with — not to mention the fire itself.
"You're constantly managing your power with the different winds and the turbulence, and with the added weight of the water or the amount of people you're carrying," Knox said.
He said there's an "oh, s--t" moment almost every day.
"When you're close to the top of a mountain or maybe the top of a ridgeline, the winds are always going to be shifting," Knox said. "And when you're out there with a long line or doing bucket work and that wind shifts, you often want to go one way, and the helicopter wants to go the other. There's always something."
And the ground has its own share of complexities. Luttrell said when Department of Forestry crews get called to a fire, they have to find or construct housing for hundreds to thousands of crew members, provide necessary supplies, and, of course, feed firefighters on the scene.
Fire crews work 12-hour shifts, either day or night. They start with a breakfast, take a lunch with them, then return and eat, and go to bed in preparation to do it all over the following day.
"It's hard work," Luttrell said. "There's not a ton of downtime, and these guys are dealing with a lot."
Luttrell said there are a number of ways to attack a fire, and technique often depends upon the size of the fire and the terrain in which it's burning. They'll do different things for grass fires, different things yet for fires consisting of fuels such as brush or oak savannas, and then if the terrain doesn't allow for trucks to get on site, they'll have to get crews directly into the area to attack it by hand — as they did with the Game Hog Creek Fire, which largely burned in rugged slash lands.
"They often do what they call flanking maneuvers," Luttrell said. "They never try to take a fire head-on. They start at the back end, where it's not burning as hot, and they go around the edge."
Homes in the area can complicate things as well. Oftentimes, wildfires burn in remote areas of the state, like the Tillamook State Forest. When there are homes in the area, though, protecting them is a top priority — as it was for firefighters battling blazes in Washington and Clackamas counties last September.
Luttrell said that starts with prevention. The Department of Forestry and other fire agencies tell homeowners to keep wood piles separate from the house, clear brush and trees so as to keep them a certain distance from structures, and keep flammable objects away from the house.
If an area with many structures is at risk, the Office of the State Fire Marshal typically gets involved, freeing up more resources to keep the fire at bay — or, at least, help save what they can.
"We definitely don't want to see anybody's house burned down," Luttrell said. "So, if there's something we can do, we will, but we also won't put firefighters at risk."
Luttrell said there is increasing concern about powerlines. Downed lines were the culprit behind some of the most prominent fires in Oregon last September.
"Certainly, with powerlines, there's a chance they can start fires," he said, "so in times of concern, they're working with local utilities to determine if and when they should shut off power."
One common question that arises around wildfires is defining "containment," which indicates how much of the fire has been enclosed by a control line. A wildfire with 25% containment means control lines have been completed around 25% of the fire's perimeter.
Control lines — sometimes called firebreaks — can be created with controlled burns or by removing dry wood, brush and other vegetation with dozers. The intent is to form a barrier that will stop a wildfire from spreading, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which has borne the brunt of the United States' increasingly dangerous wildfires over the past decade.
And do firefighters ever really get these things out before the winter takes care of it in the end?
The answer is: sometimes yes, sometimes no. But often, it depends on the weather.
Obviously, cooler and wetter conditions are beneficial, but Knox says that even when wildfires appear to wind down, the process of monitoring them for flare-ups is just beginning.
"As they get things under control and they start to release resources, we'll take somebody up to monitor if from above," he said. "They're always making sure there's no hotspots near the line and nothing that can jump containment. That's always what scares them."
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