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Public-private cost questions arise after fire

Stimson does its part to fight fires -- on its own land and elsewhere


Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: CHASE ALLGOOD - Stimson Lumber forester Robert Crawford brings a water hose back to one of the companys tinder trucks. Septembers Scoggins Creek Fire was his first.On Friday, Sept. 19, a Stimson Lumber Co. contract logger was doing the afternoon fire watch after logging stopped at 1 p.m.

It's a standard, three-hour procedure once a logging crew quits for the day when the fire danger is at level 3.

At 2 p.m., he saw smoke a few ridges over, in the private forestland above Henry Hagg Lake, and called for backup.

Samuel Howard of Stimson, a sunburned staff forester with tree-trunk arms, got the call and took off to see for himself, arriving at the fire site at 2:30. “About a half-acre to an acre was burning,” said Howard. “It was moving real fast.”

“It was a tinderbox,” said Brett O’Nion, Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) operations chief.

By then, the public-private partnership that governs and pays for fire suppression in Oregon was already in motion.

The Gaston Fire Department was there with a water-filled brush rig. Oregon Department of Forestry staffers had arrived with two trucks. Stimson crews, with company gear and machinery, were on the way from their mill six miles away — all cooperating to fight the Scoggins Creek Fire.

Public-private debate

When a private home catches fire, nobody questions that the local fire department will run to the rescue. That’s a service taxes pay for.

But when the forestland of a private timber company with annual sales of about $250 million per year catches fire, should the same principle hold?

Why should taxpayers pay the nearly $2 million it cost to fight the Scoggins Creek Fire, which burned 211 acres of Stimson trees?

There are plenty of reasons, it turns out — not the least, to protect nearby residents, homes and the Forest Grove Watershed, which were also threatened.

But it’s also because Stimson itself pays for much of the extra protection — in money and manpower.

With 50,000 acres of timberland in the Forest Grove area and a working mill churning out finished lumber, Stimson has a lot at stake when there’s a fire.

As part of an agreement renegotiated each year between fire districts and private landowners, a “most efficient level of protection” budget is formed, said Roger Van Dyke, a Stimson forester for the last 40 years.

With 1.5 million acres to protect in the state’s Forest Grove fire district (spread across Washington, Tillamook and Columbia counties), $4.1 million was budgeted for protection this year. “Private landowners like Stimson pay about $1 an acre,” Van Dyke added. Stimson owns 175,000 acres in Oregon, including the 50,000-acre tract where the fire burned last month, so pays $175,000 a year into the fund each year even if they don't use government help.

The company also has a 14-member team of firefighting foresters at the Forest Grove mill site. All but two live in Forest Grove, Gaston and Banks, with the others in Newberg and McMinnville.

They’re officially called Stimson Foresters and jokingly nicknamed “A Tremendous Machine.” The group comprises mostly graduate degree-holding foresters who are fully trained to fight and manage fires. On-site at Stimson’s Gaston mill is the firefighting gear and rigs the company has purchased over the years: three fire engines, along with tractors, CATs and water tender trucks.

“We’re all trained at it,” said Scott Gray, Oregon Lands Manager for Stimson. “We typically don’t fight big, big fires in the summertime, but we’re ready.”

“We usually only have two to three fires a year and they’re usually small, so we can get them stomped out,” said Van Dyke. “This is the largest fire there’s been on our Oregon lands during my tenure.”

Company contractors — such as loggers, road builders and timber fallers — are also paid by Stimson to fight the fire. They know the land well and are in top physical shape to handle the rigors of fire suppression.

In the first 12 hours of a fire, all firefighting entities, public and private, have a mutual aid agreement, said Eric Perkins of the ODF. “We don’t charge each other to fight the fire.”

Costly decisions

When the fire goes beyond Stimson’s ability to extinguish it, additional resources are brought to bear.

Mike Cafferata is the Forest Grove-based district forester from the ODF who oversaw operations during the fire and is able to call in additional resources when necessary. He also has to keep a careful eye on the bottom line.

“We have a limited pot of resources, so we have to make sure we spend it wisely,” Cafferata said. Matt Evensen of Stimson Lumber Co. checks hose fittings on one of the company's trucks. After the Scoggins Creek Fire, employees took time to put their equipment back in order.

He signs off on ordering food for the firefighting troops, renting equipment, having enough radios for the teams in the field and the like, weighing cost against need while guessing at the future.

The day before the fire started, he'd considered putting a helicopter on standby in McMinnville — something he does a few times a year. The trees and brush were very dry and 20 mph winds were expected the next day. But at $5,000 per day, “that’s a costly decision,” said Cafferata, who chose to skip it.

So the helicopter wasn’t immediately available when the fire started. At a post-mortem meeting at Stimson Monday morning, Cafferata wondered aloud whether there’s a better way to determine when the helicopter is needed.

“Firefighting is a community exercise,” he said.

Among private landholders in Oregon, "Stimson Lumber is at the top in terms of preparedness for fire," noted Cafferata. Yet those who can’t pitch in on the fire line help in other, sometimes unexpected ways.

By midnight that Friday, when the fire was blazing and crews were working all night, Stimson's Scott Gray knew one thing for sure: His guys needed fuel for their bodies.

He raced into Forest Grove just after Domino's Pizza closed. Banging incessantly on the locked door, he managed to attract the attention of two employees doing cleanup. One opened up and Gray said he needed eight pizzas.

“He saw the soot all over me and said, ‘OK.’"

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