Forest protective association celebrates century

Forest protective association celebrates century

06 May 2012

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USA — ROSBURG, Ore. — The Douglas Forest Protective Association will turn 100 years old Sunday, with its mission the same as when it began, according to District Manager Melvin Thornton.

“Our business today is very similar to the way it was in 1912,” he said. “Minimize fire damage and do it cost-effectively.”

Since it was formed by landowners 100 years ago, DFPA has grown to provide wildfire protection to 1.6 million acres of private, county, state and Bureau of Land Management land. At the height of summer, it employees 120 people. Year-round, the agency has 15 full-time staff members.

Thornton, who has been district manager since 2000, was hired for a DFPA firefighting crew in 1971 when he was 16. In his time with DFPA, Thornton has seen the association evolve. New technology and equipment have changed the way DFPA fights and prevents fires, he said.

Thornton’s father worked for the association and as a kid Thornton lived in a guard station. Thornton’s mother cooked meals for the 10-person fire crew that lived there, Thornton said.

“When you had a fire, day or night, your crew was there,” he said.

By the time Thornton started working for DFPA in the early ’70s, the association was doing away with the bunkhouses because they were too expensive to maintain, he said.

These days, crews patrol the district, which covers Douglas County from the border with Josephine County to just south of Cottage Grove. From west to east, the district spans between Elkton to the Umpqua National Forest east of Glide.

Thornton remembers eight-person crews riding on planks in the bed of a small pickup to reach a fire. Now crews travel in vans.

DFPA also relies much more on helicopters that can dump water to fight fires, Thornton said.

Thornton has seen DFPA shift from guard towers to surveillance cameras to detect fires. DFPA no longer has any staffed lookouts and relies instead on mountaintop cameras that rotate 360 degrees.

With 27 cameras dispersed throughout its district, the agency’s fire surveillance camera system is the largest in North American, Thornton said.

“That’s been a significant change,” he said. “I’m quite sure that’s going to be the way of the future.”

The cameras watch 24 hours a day, said George Day, general manager of EnviroVision Solutions, which makes the software for the cameras.

“The camera never sleeps and along with the (smoke) detection software, it’s constantly looking,” Day said.

Mapping software connected to the cameras allows DFPA to pinpoint the fire and dispatch a crew, he said. Camera images help the agency assess how much response a fire requires, Day said.

Private landowners pay for fire protection. DFPA protects timberlands for $1.21 an acre and grazing land for 60 cents an acre. The BLM and Oregon Department of Forestry also pay to have their lands protected. The agreement with BLM works out well because much of its land in Southwestern Oregon forms a checkerboard pattern among private lands, Thornton said.

“It makes a lot more coordinated effort for the BLM to have it under one protection,” he said.

At 1.3 million acres, most of the land DFPA protects is timberland, Thornton said.

DFPA owes its start to private timberland owners, Thornton said. They realized banding together would be the best way to protect their investments from forest fires, he said.

“The fire protection started back when it became obvious that they needed some cooperative nature to protect the lands because they couldn’t do it alone,” Thornton said. “It dawned on them that there was not a never-ending supply (of timber), so they needed to protect that.”

Along with striving to minimize the damage from forest fires, DFPA stresses prevention, Thornton said. The organization urges homeowners to sweep pine needle from roofs and clear brush from around houses.

“It’s impossible for us to be everywhere. If we can educate people to do things around their homes, most of those homes could survive a forest fire,” Thornton said.

Douglas County homeowners have to be prepared for wildfires, Thornton said.

“We will have fires here,” he said. “It’s an area that’s fire prone. Always has, always will be.”

Community support and dedicated staff members have helped sustain DFPA for 100 years, Thornton said.

“A hundred years is a long time,” Thornton said. “I’ve thought about that a lot. Are we setting up for the next 100 years? I think we are.”

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