Washington County prepares for wildfire season
For firefighters out in the wild, everything is a bit lighter.
Firefighting trucks need to traverse uneven roadways. Their hoses need to stretch across brush. And their protective gear needs to be light for the long haul.
All month on some private logging land outside Gaston, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue has been training crews to dig lines and transport water to fight wildland fires.
"The biggest difference is out in the wildland, you have to be mobile and agile," said Lt. Matt Fehrenbacher of Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.
Fehrenbacher typically works on a truck company crew focused on rescue operations — usually of a more urban nature. He helps extricate people who are trapped, and to rescue people from burning buildings.
"Our structural gear has multiple layers, because we're going into a box that's on fire. It's hotter. Everything is enclosed and trapped and it's dangerous," Fehrenbacher explained. "Out here, the danger is the magnitude and the scope of the fire."
In September 2020, the Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak Fire burned over 700 acres in unincorporated Washington County — without taking any lives or damaging homes.
That wasn't by accident. TVF&R ordered evacuations in plenty of time for residents to flee — Groner K-8 School and Mountainside High School were used as temporary evacuation centers — and they devoted their firefighting efforts to keeping the blaze away from residences.
"We didn't lose a single life or structure. I was damn proud of that," Fehrenbacher said.
The fire was sparked by an improperly extinguished campfire.
"I think our biggest threats are some of the smaller-scale fires that come from old burns, carelessness or pyrotechnics," said David Morris, who took over earlier this year as chief of the Gaston Rural Fire District. His agency serves a swath of western Washington and Yamhill counties that encompasses rugged, wooded areas, as well as vineyards, farms and fields.
Morris added, "Gaston and the west end of Forest Grove are classic examples of home built into the wilderness. … Whether we like it or not, wildland fires are a big part of our jobs now when we have a wildland-urban interface of people living right up against heavily forested areas."
The training led by TVF&R was designed for firefighters who typically respond to medical calls, structural fires and vehicle accidents. It included firefighters from throughout Washington County and beyond.
Firefighters reviewed how to utilize a dozen varieties of axe, hoe, shovel and rake to cut lines as part of what's called a "hand crew." These operators are tasked with tasked with removing a few yards' worth of potential fuel from a fire's edge, securing a perimeter. They also learned to connect a wildland fire hose, which is thinner and can be linked with attachments to stretch for thousands of yards across any terrain.
"Wildland is different in that it's a very fluid environment with wind, topography and fuel, whereas with a structural fire, you can isolate stuff to a box for the most part and contain it," said TVF&R wildland fire coordinator Travis Kanoff. "When cutting a line, we prefer to go direct, which is right on the fire line — literally one foot in the black and one foot in the green — working to drain the fuel and keep it from spreading."
Hand crews working a wildfire, Kanoff said, must "work fast and contain it before the weather picks up."
In addition to the hand crews, wildland firefighters sometimes use bulldozers to clear extra wide paths of trees and vegetation to cut off an advancing fire in a particular spot.
While everyone receives at least some level of training for wildfires, TVF&R has a 48-person team dedicated to fighting wildfires, both locally and across Oregon, Washington and Northern California. For them, it's not a matter of "if," but when and where they will be deployed this summer.
"Come Memorial Day Weekend, we're ready to go," Kanoff said. "Our bags are packed. Our teams are in place, and we're available at a phone call's notice."
When deployed elsewhere, crews typically work two weeks straight.
"We work for 12 hours, which usually ends up being 14. If you're unlucky, you're on the night shift, which is rough because you have to try to sleep in 90-degree heat," said Paul Coplin, who drives apparatus — firefighter parlance for the array of vehicles and heavy equipment they use — for TVF&R's wildland fire unit.
Coplin added, "I love it. It's my favorite. I like camping and stuff."
So far this spring, Gov. Kate Brown has declared a drought emergency in eight counties in southern and eastern Oregon. In the Willamette Valley, conversely, an abnormally wet spring has delayed the start of fire season.
Colby Neuman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland, said while July and August are expected to be typically dry, a bit of summer rain could really limit the potential of western Washington County's fire season.
"It's going to take quite a bit for vegetation to dry out. All this rain is really good news. We don't have anything to worry about for at least a month, and probably a bit more than that," Neuman said. "Then if we get rain once every three weeks over the course of summer, our vegetation never really dries out. Not to say we can't have fire, but we're not going to see the kind of fires we've had over the last several years — if we get rain every three or four weeks, then we basically don't have a fire season."
It's too early to rest easy. Neuman said if July and August are completely dry — far from impossible, given the Willamette Valley's climate — conditions could still pose a fire danger.
Dave Nemeyer, a fire marshal and division chief with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, said he is particularly worried about human-caused wildfires.
"We've kind of joked over the years that Northwest Oregon is the asbestos forest. It doesn't have the history that southern, central and eastern (Oregon) does in terms of wildfires," Nemeyer said. "But climate change is impacting us, and even with this rainy, wet spring, I'm not really willing to say this is going to be a quiet fire season here. All of this green brush is going to dry out by August, and through October, of course it could be bad."
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