Oregon forest owners, operators making big difference in the fire fight

In the massive, multi-agency effort to corral dozens of wildfires burning across the state, the work of Oregon’s private forest owners and operators often gets overlooked. To borrow from firefighting lingo, these landowners are the true “first responders” when it comes to battling fires. If a timber harvest operation sparks a small fire, for example, in most instances the loggers on scene put it out immediately. But only a fraction of the blazes are started by their activities.

“It is worth noting that the large majority of human-caused fires are not industrial related,” said Rex Storm with Associated Oregon Loggers. “Most result from carelessness and not from industrial activities such as logging.”

When large fires do occur, whether from lightning or people, forest landowners figure as a major player in the suppression actions. The Oregon Department of Forestry’s Astoria District Forester, Dan Goody, recalls the way forest owners in his area responded when he advised them earlier this summer about predicted extreme weather conditions.

“They put a lot of thought into planning and preparing for fires,” he said. “And when the fires broke out, they dropped what they were doing and rushed to the scene to help.”

They bring a lot of know-how and hardware to the job. Forest landowners are intimately familiar with the terrain, road systems, and other information crucial to a firefighting operation. And when the West Oregon District called on them for help, they even brought heavy equipment to fill in for ODF fire engines and other gear that had been dispatched to fight existing fires.

“When the Willamina Creek Fire took off, local landowners organized task forces of their company fire engines and also water tenders to back up department firefighters,” said Mike Dykzeul with the Oregon Forest Industries Council (OFIC). “For example Starker Forests, Inc. placed engines at the offices in Dallas and Philomath to back up ODF.”

Starker and other forestry companies have been fully engaged in assisting agency suppression operations throughout the state during this severe fire season. While the industry has routinely responded to firefighting needs “for more than a century,” he said the 2015 response has been remarkable. OFIC put out a call for assistance to landowners and forest operation Aug. 15, citing the extreme fire conditions and the shortage of resources. The notice included an appeal for “trained personnel and equipment, capable of assisting in suppression actions, to make their availability known” to their local ODF or fire protective association office.

Oregon’s forest industry quickly stepped up to fill specialized fire team positions such as Falling Boss and Dozer Boss, along with supplying an array of equipment from bulldozers for constructing fire line, to mechanized logging gear to create fire breaks.

There could be a lot if fire season still ahead. But Goody is optimistic based on the response he has seen so far from landowners and operators.

“It has worked really well – a fully coordinated statewide system on steroids,” he said. “Given the scarcity of resources across the state, I don’t think we could have made such a strong response without their efforts.”