TVF&R personnel a big presence in fighting wildfires
Having served as the primary commander for one of the state fire marshal's three emergency incident management teams for years now, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Les Hallman has helped fight wildfires across Oregon.
Like the handful of TVF&R firefighters and command staff based in Newberg who are regularly deployed in that capacity, Hallman has been called away from home more than ever this summer amid one of the most intense fire seasons in state history.
In Hallman's estimation, that's mostly because the three biggest conflagrations — the Milli Fire near Sisters, the Chetco Bar Fire near Brookings and the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge — have been abnormally big events.
"Any of these incidents in a normal year would have been a major event," Hallman said. "But right now they're literally all dots on a map because there are so many of them going on."
In all, five firefighters and two command staff based in Newberg have been deployed to fight wildfires this summer, either as part of one of the incident command teams, like Hallman, or through emergency task forces that are called up by the Oregon fire marshal through counties.
According to TVF&R Lt. Andrew Willette, a veteran of the Newberg department, Newberg-based firefighters have served at all three major fires this summer.
That includes several locals who served on task force crews deployed overnight Sept. 4 to the Eagle Creek Fire to protect structures at the historic Eagle Creek Fish Hatchery. Those efforts including using protective wrapping and hose lines to protect structures, like a heritage restroom that features one of the first flush toilets in the U.S. Forest Service, fighting spot fires across the hatchery grounds and back burning around the perimeter to strengthen the fire line.
Hallman said his Green Incident Management Team oversaw a lot of similar work to protect homes during a seven-day stint at the Chetco Bar Fire that ended Friday.
"There is an enormous amount of work that's done while we're waiting for the fire to get to us," Hallman said. "At Chetco Bar, there were over 1,200 homes that were assessed."
In all, Hallman said more than 8,500 homes were threatened at Chetco Bar and 5,000 citizens were evacuated. Of the 1,200 homes that were assessed, wildfire preparations were made on 580, with temporary emergency sprinkler systems installed at 174.
"What that's designed to do is if those are in really high risk areas where it would be very dangerous for firefighters to stay next to the home, we'll fire those pumps off and the firefighters will go to a safe zone and wait for the fire to move through," Hallman said. "Then we'll get back in there and do everything we can to put out the fire."
Overall, 103 different fire departments sent resources to Chetco Bar and over 400 structural firefighters aided in the effort.
Hallman added that the Chetco Bar Fire was historic in two different aspects, including that a state incident management team "timed out" for the first time ever, meaning it was pulled off the fire after spending the maximum 14 days there. Hallman's Green Team was then deployed to relieve it.
At more than 180,000 square acres, the size of Chetco Bar was a factor in making it the No. 1 national priority fire for resources (before it was overtaken by Eagle Creek), but Hallman said it's intensity was also extraordinary.
Specifically, he pointed to the fire's Probability of Ignition rating, which firefighters refer to as PIG.
"When you have an ember blow away from a fire, how likely is it for that ember to start again when it hits the ground or another tree," Hallman explained. "It's given a percentage from 0 to 100. For multiple days and nights, we were seeing probability of ignition at 100 percent. That's just unheard of."
The timing of the wildfire season has also been abnormally late, as Hallman said that in most years, things tend to begin winding down around Labor Day.
Part of the reason for that, he says, results from the combination of an extremely wet winter, which produced a large amount of fuel in the form of underbrush, and the ensuing summer heat wave that made that fuel, and the forests overall, extremely dry.
Fortunately, turns in the weather at both Chetco Bar and Eagle Creek have slowed both fires. Hallman said the local and national crews fighting Chetco Bar are now "in a very good spot," but that could change quickly and doesn't expect it to be halted completely for at least another month.
"But that's one of those fires, it's so large it will continue to burn until the rainy season comes in," Hallman said.