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Firefighters practice, weeds burn, in Oaks Bottom

by: Eric Norberg, While the torchers were setting the non-native canary grass on fire, other firefighters in “brush units”, with self-contained water tanks aboard, were already following their part of the plan to make sure the fire did not burn outside the prescribed boundaries.

A decade ago, a controlled burn in the south end of Oaks Bottom got rid of invasive weeds and reduced the danger of wildfire there, and the Parks Bureau was figuring it was time to do it again. But this time, it was not just Parks for whom a 'prescribed burn' was sought. Now, the Portland Fire Bureau was looking to hone its wildfire-fighting skills too.

In September, that same 8-acre grassy area of Oaks Bottom became the first project of a Portland three-year effort to reduce the potential for significant wildfire--at Oaks Bottom, Willamette Bluffs, Powell Butte, and Forest Park. The project, involving both the Portland Fire Bureau and the Portland Bureau of Parks and Environmental Services, received federal funding from the Office of Homeland Security.

Further, the plans for the Oaks Bottom controlled burn this year gave the Portland Fire Bureau the opportunity it had been looking for, for training. Firefighters from all over the metro area, including as far away as Gresham, were selected to learn wildfire fighting techniques during the exercise, and some of them received training for certification to set backfires in brushfire situations. Other fire companies stood by to assist in keeping the fire contained, and to make sure it was 'stone cold out' before fire officials left the area a day later.

The strategy and details for the burn were planned by Portland Firefighter Chris Barney, who has extensive wildfire experience, and who made his plan conditional on having the right weather conditions for such a fire. The 'prescribed burn' was also supervised by the Parks Bureau, represented in part by Mark Wilson, a Sellwood resident.

The original date announced for the grassland burn was Thursday, September 21st--but a week of rain made conditions then unsuitable. With an improving forecast, Wednesday, September 27th, was chosen as the second and final candidate date for the year; if that was not a good day for a fire, the whole thing was to be put off till late next spring. But the 27th dawned clear, with a high in the mid-80's forecast, and the firefighter briefing took place at 10 am in the Sellwood Park parking lot.

At 1 pm, the firefighters who were to start the burn were in place in the south end with their torches, burning a mixture of diesel and gasoline. At 1:02 pm the first puff of smoke appeared, shortly afterward followed by low flames. Firefighters monitoring the situation on water tankers were at the sides of the fire area, the torch personnel were following the prescribed route north, firefighters on specially modified off-road motorbikes roved the field keeping an eye on things, and media reporters with cameras and recorders got as close as allowed to get a good view of the event.

By 1:50 pm the entire field was blackened and the invasive weeds were burned out; firefighers brandishing hoses had extinguished spotfires at the perimeter; and mop-up had begun. Portland Fire Bureau remained on-scene to monitor the site for 24 hours.