On the Beat: Firefighters play catch-up to try to establish lines around wildfires

A couple of weeks ago, the National Fire Information Center in a post updating the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon estimated that the massive blaze would not be contained until late November. That’s contained, not extinguished. There’s a difference.

It can be confusing but when a fire is 100% contained, there are likely still active fires burning within the perimeter. Containing a wildfire simply means that a fuel break has been established around the fire and that could include natural barriers such as roads or lakes, or manual barriers through the removal of vegetation. Flames have a tougher time advancing if they have nothing to consume.

While interviewing Philomath Fire & Rescue Capt. Rich Saalsaa several days ago after he had returned from the Bootleg Fire, he provided a clear explanation on containment.

“On a fire that size, the first thing you do is you try to get a line out,” Saalsaa said, referring to the Bootleg. “You prep for the fire to come this way by putting a big dozer line out as wide as possible. And if you have the time, you back burn from that point on so the fire is met and basically it can’t go anymore, which expands your line. Once that’s done, it’s considered contained.”

The Bootleg Fire was 0% contained through the first 10 days. At the end of this past week, it had passed 50% containment. A few days ago, nearly 2,000 firefighters continued to work at the scene, which encompassed an area of more than 410,000 acres.

Obviously, the work is not easy and there are times when a line doesn’t hold. Saalsaa said that on the Bootleg, there were situations when the fire was jumping lines as soon as firefighters would get one established.

“It’s always a catch-up game,” he added. “Over the last couple of days with the weather being a little more calm (we did this interview on July 23), they’ve had a lot more time out there to do it.”

Investigators determined that the Bootleg Fire was caused by lightning.

“For a while, they were waiting to get the modeling in,” said Saalsaa, who himself has a strong background in fire investigative work. “They had enough satellite photos where they actually saw the thunder clouds come through and then the little tiniest whiff of smoke and it was already a beast unleashed within the first hours. They went out there to try to get it when it was small and it just went all around them right away.”

Saalsaa said the fire won’t be fully extinguished until the region’s winter precipitation arrives. He said it’s impossible to put out a fire that’s 400,000-plus acres in size — there’s not enough water.

“They’ll contain the whole fire but when the fire actually gets put out is when the rain and snow start,” he said.

As of Wednesday, no additional Philomath firefighters had been sent to any wildfires but that could’ve changed. Nine local personnel were at various wildfires last month. Red flag warnings for much of the state had been in effect in recent days in addition to excessive heat warnings. Those conditions can be dangerous and it’s that same scenario — along with lightning strikes — that set up the last run of fires.

“All eyes are on the lookout for any events that may already be out there and burning,” Saalsaa said Thursday.

Eugene Springfield Fire reported that two firefighting task forces from Utah were prepositioning late last week to respond to any new fire starts and were touring communities to become familiar with the surroundings.

Tree being watered
Drought is stressing street and yard trees across Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Forestry)

Keep your trees alive

One of the issues in my front yard this summer is keeping some green in my lawn and in the street tree. On the latter, I’m hoping that my negligence hasn’t done too much damage. The drought has been rough on street and yard trees.

“Unlike a lawn, trees are a long-term investment well worth the water needed to get them through our dry summers,” said Kristin Ramstad, Oregon Department of Forestry’s Urban and Community Forestry Assistance program manager. “People enjoy multiple benefits from healthy, mature trees. They not only clean the air and reduce noise pollution, they also keep things cooler through shade and releasing water from their leaves into the air. There are also mental health and social benefits, such as improved focus and less stress.”

Well, I could use a little boost to my mental health and reduce some stress at the same time, so I’ll be sure to pay more attention to my little tree out front.

This all comes to mind because Trees for Life Oregon and Oregon Community Trees have declared the last week in July and the last week in August as Soak It Week. As such, Oregonians are reminded that to keep their street and yard trees healthy, give them a good, slow soaking in their root zone.

“Well-watered trees grow faster and are less likely to suffer scorching of their leaves and premature leaf drop. So watering gives you a better-looking tree over time than ones that struggle through our increasingly dry summers,” Oregon Community Trees President Samantha Wolf said.

You can learn more about tree watering at this link.

OK, I’m on it.

(Brad Fuqua is publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He can be reached at [email protected]).

Philomath
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