First test burn in 10 years signals start of new policy to control fire starts

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO:ROBIN JOHNSON - Eric Redding of the Oregon Department of Forestry stamps out the flames at the edge of a controlled burn off JP West Road Saturday, Aug. 10The Scappoose Fire District held a joint training exercise and prescribed burn off JP West Road Saturday, Aug. 10, and Wednesday, Aug. 14, along with Columbia River Fire and Rescue, Washington County Fire District 2, Portland Fire and Rescue, Sauvie Island Fire and the Oregon Department of Forestry.

SFD Division Chief Jeff Pricher said the burns worked as both an opportunity to provide experience to fire crews as well as to remove hazardous fire fuels in the area as the fire season takes hold.

SDF planned on completing the exercise Saturday, but smoke from the initial test burns hit what Pricher called an inversion layer, which held the smoke close to the ground.

“An inversion is basically a layer of air between the ground and the upper atmosphere that prevents heat from escaping upwards,” Pricher said. “Without any transport winds, we didn’t want to add any smoke. It wasn’t safe to burn, so we postponed.”

Fire crews resumed the exercise Wednesday evening, burning 5 acres in five separate segmented burns. Pricher said that, although Wednesday’s burn “couldn’t have gone better,” dispatch received a total of 59 calls Wednesday evening due to the vertical plumes of smoke caused by the test fire. by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO:ROBIN JOHNSON - Fire Crews survey the line of a prescribed burn off JP West Road on Saturday during a training exercise.

When asked if more notification could have been provided to the community to prevent the high volume of 9-1-1 calls, Pricher said, “Ultimately I think what it comes down to is, no matter how much notification you give, there will still be a call. We definitely want to make sure we don’t impact our 9-1-1 partners as they have an important and busy job.”

Pricher said this year’s fire season has been one of the busiest in the past 10 years. “Regionally we’re at a preparedness level four on a one-to-five scale,” he said. “At level five, the resources and teams would be at a point where there’s none left to take on another incident.”

Pricher believes prescribed burns are an important tool in preventing large forest fires by removing potential fuels that may ignite wild burns.

“There’s a great debate going on at the state and national level between people who believe in global warming and those who don’t,” Pricher said. “For years and years, we had a forest policy where anytime there was a fire, we put it out. Ecologists have concluded that this has set our forests up for failure.”by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Ryan Ridinger, of Columbia River Fire and Rescue, uses a drip torch to burn a line of dry grass in order to contain Saturday's prescribed burn.

By extinguishing all fires, natural fire fuels — like the dry grass SFD burnt to conduct their training — continue to spread and often create fires four to five times larger than usual, Pricher said.

“One way to prevent this is to prescribe burning to remove hazardous fuels, so if lightning strikes in the middle of nowhere, we can handle it,” Pricher said. “Prescribed fires are probably the future of firefighting.”

During a briefing with fire crews before the training exercise Saturday, Pricher said that in 2000, Scappoose fire crews attempted a test burn of 1 acre along the levee. The burn got out of hand and spread to 200 acres. We’re not going to let that happen today,” Pricher said.

Pricher added that SFD hasn’t conducted any test burns within the past 10 years.

Asked why SFD has held no prescribed burns or live fire training exercise within that time frame, Pricher replied, “We just didn’t have qualified people to manage training fires, now we do.”

Live fire training exercises will now be held at least once or twice annually, Pricher added.

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