Lightning is largely absent from Oregon this week. However, warm, dry weather will greet the hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving to see the eclipse of the sun on Aug. 21. Avoiding activities that can spark a wildfire is key to making the eclipse a safe and pleasant experience for all. One measure adopted to reduce the risk of wildfire is a temporary ban, now in effect, on all campfires in state parks





Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Keeping Oregon Green…one wildfire at a time?

Sept. 2, 2015

By the Oregon Cattlemen's Association 

Smothering smoke. Burning heat. Charred remains. Wildfires are natural disasters that should never be taken lightly. But how do you prepare for something that you know is going to happen, but are not given the when or where on the timing of the strike? Meet the Oregon Rangeland Fire Protection Association. The group, initially formed in 1964, is made up of Oregon ranchers who have come together to form a volunteer firefighting program that an Oregon Department of Forestry report is calling a grass roots success story.

Silas Skinner, 37, is a rancher from Oregon’s far East corner of Jordan Valley. He is president of the local RFPA and said the idea for the Jordan Valley association started during a fire in 2006. The disaster left many ranchers feeling helpless when it came to protecting their animals, land and local communities. Skinner said sitting back and watching the action didn’t bode well with many from the area. “The main thing was to be able to fight the fire,” he said.

Fast forward to 2015. With the drought the state of Oregon is currently experiencing, no one was shocked when a fire was called in during a lighting storm on June 28th. Phil Obendorf, a young rancher from Wilder, Idaho, caught word that the Jaca Reservoir fire was burning on Oregon land where his cattle were grazing. The first thought that ran through his head was, “save the cows lives.” Obendorf is a member of Oregon’s Jordan Valley RFPA and showed up to fight the fire at 7 p.m. that night, soon after the flames had begun to burn. With over 400 cattle grazing the land the fire was engulfing, Obendorf shuddered to think what the outcome might be.

Vale BLM was first to arrive on the scene and brought around 35 personnel including eight different vehicles/firefighting equipment. RFPA also received word of the fire via a radio system their ranchers carry at all times in case of emergency. Skinner was in the middle of cutting hay when he got the call. He and his wife, brother and brother’s wife all grabbed their equipment and rushed to the scene. Moments after BLM’s arrival, Jordan Valley RFPA had over 40 personnel and 28 pieces of equipment on sight. After conferring with BLM, the two groups split off to cover more ground.

Clint Fillmore, 44, acts as a liaison between Jordan Valley RFPA and Vale BLM. He carries two different radios, one for each group, that allow him to tell one group what area the other is currently covering. “We had three areas going on that fire at one time,” Fillmore said. Every member is required to carry a radio for safety. Larry Moore of Vale BLM said, “Over the last several years there has been outstanding synchronization of operations, specifically radio procedures, which helps to more effectively coordinate cooperative efforts in a seamless way.”

25 year old RFPA member Annie Mackenzie drove over an hour and half to help battle the flames. “When I’m driving out there its nerve racking, but once I’m there it’s down to business,” she said. Mackenzie drove a water tinder, a semi-truck carrying a water tank, and supplied both BLM and RFPA with water as needed. “We’re (BLM and RFPA) definitely working together.”

36 hours elapsed before Skinner resigned himself to taking a break. He reports that during their time, five to six RFPA personnel dedicated themselves to herding cattle out of the fire’s aggressive path, while the rest focused on dousing the flames. By July 1st the fire was controlled and by the 3rd it was contained. During the time it burned the fire consumed 13, 460 acres.

For Obendorf, that meant 12,000 acres of prime cattle grazing was out of commission for the next 2 years. Still, he’s thankful crews were able to save what they did.

“The RFPA is made up of ranchers that know the area which is key in helping fight wildfires,” Obendorf said. While he lost three cows, three calves and one bull in the flames, the RFPA was able to herd 400 of his cattle away from the fire, something government agencies don’t always have enough staffing to accomplish. “The RFPA saved my herd,” Obendorf said.

There are over 14 RFPA groups around Oregon consisting of over 600 volunteer members. While wildfires may seem a distant concern to some of Oregon’s urban areas, they have a direct impact on the state’s budget and in a way burn right through the heart of the capital. Volunteer programs, like the RFPA, help protect Oregon’s rangeland and its finances.

Oregon prides itself in its beautiful landscapes and vibrant variety of wildlife. Fillmore sees that wildfires endanger that beauty in that they are a threat to Oregon communities, wildlife and animals. Why fight fires? “I do it because we have to protect the rangeland and wildlife,” he said.

“You can’t just sit there and hope for the best,” Mackenzie added. “It’s my brothers, my cousins, my neighbors, my friends. If they need one more person out there to watch their back, I want to be that person.”

Being a volunteer Oregon firefighter is a time consuming job. Especially when there are cows to be fed, water troughs to fill, and gates to fix. “It takes time that’s not available,” said Fillmore. “But is it worth it? The answer is yes.”

The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association was founded in 1913 and works to promote environmentally and socially sound industry practices, improve and strengthen the economics of the industry, and protect its industry communities and private property rights.

- By Kayli Hanley

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The purpose of this blog is to provide breaking news about wildfire activity on the forestlands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry. We invite you to post questions or comments you have about current wildfires. Please keep your posts civil and free of profanity. You are also welcome to contact us by email at: information@odf.state.or.us.

Current wildfire info

Cool, wet weather in the winter of 2016-17 ended Oregon's long drought and left a thick snowpack at higher elevations which will take some time to melt. However, even in non-drought years Oregon's warm, dry summers create conditions that allow for fire to start and spread. In an average summer firefighters still see almost a thousand fires on lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry.



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Protection jurisdiction

The Oregon Dept. of Forestry protects 16 million acres of private and public forestlands from wildfire. This includes all private forestlands in Oregon as well as state- and local government-owned forests, along with 2.8 million acres of federal Bureau of Land Management lands in the western part of the state. There are about 30.4 million total acres of forest in Oregon.



Fire suppression policy

The department fights fire aggressively, seeking to put out most fires at 10 acres or smaller. This approach minimizes damage to the timber resource and fish and wildlife habitat, and protects lives and property. It also saves money. While suppressing large fires can cost millions of dollars, economic and environmental damage from wildfires can be many times greater.




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Oregon Dept. of Forestry's public information officers in Salem, Ore., maintain this blog. During the wildfire season, we spend much of our time reporting on fires and firefighting to news media and the public.