Oregon’s wildfire season: deadly, expensive, ignited by lightning

Oregon’s wildfire season: deadly, expensive, ignited by lightning

25 September 2013

published by www.oregonlive.com

USA — Thrashing rain has snuffed Oregon’s wildfire season, one of the deadliest the state has seen.

Three firefighters were killed in Oregon in the line of duty, including one man who suffered a medical incident. A fourth Oregon firefighter died of natural causes battling a blaze in California.

The season also cost a bundle: $245 million, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s definitely been one of the more expensive (seasons) for the state,” said Brian Ballou, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

This year the state was also pummeled by lighting, with nearly 240,000 strikes so far.

“That was the unique thing this season,” said Tom Knappenberger, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

By comparison, there were nearly 121,000 strikes in 2012 and nearly 56,000 in 2011.

The lightning kept local crews busy, as they rushed to contain flames before they spread.

“They had a very busy year,” Knappenberger said. “Ninety-seven percent of all fires are small.”

But Oregon had large blazes as well, with nearly 4,300 wildfires scorching more than 450,000 acres, slightly more than the state’s 10-year average.

Blazes swept through brittle rangeland and dry forests, igniting fires from Warm Springs to The Dalles and in the northeast, southeast and southwest parts of the states. The longest-burning and most challenging blazes were in southwest Oregon.

At the end of July, with nine fires in the Northwest, mainly in Oregon, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise declared the region its top priority, giving Oregon and Washington first dibs on crews and equipment.

They were needed, especially helicopters and air tankers which were kept busy dumping water and retardant on the complexes in Douglas and Josephine counties.

“We had a lot of air power when we needed it,” said Ballou of the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Despite those resources, with crews pouring into the state, the season turned deadly in August. On Aug. 1, John Hammack, 58, was killed clearing trees in the Deschutes National Forest west of Sisters. On Aug. 6, 19-year-old Jesse Trader died when his water tender rolled over an embankment near the Big Windy complex in southwest Oregon. On Aug. 10, Kevin Hall, 59 of Ontario, suffered a medical issue while working on a fire line in eastern Oregon. And on Aug. 25, Oscar Montano-Garcia of Medford collapsed while battling a wildfire in Northern California.

The last time an Oregon firefighter died in the line of duty was in a 2008 helicopter crash in northern California. That accident killed seven firefighters from Grayback Forestry, the Oregon pilot and a Forest Service inspector pilot from California. The last Oregon firefighter to die in the line of duty in Oregon was in 1994.

— Lynne Terry


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