Hot to cold: Ore. wildland FFs switch from fighting fires to plowing snow
Nine members of the Oregon Department of Forestry are participating in the state's Fire and Ice program
Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.
MEDFORD, Ore. — The wildfire season may be over, but firefighters are still working to keep people safe — as winter snowplow drivers.
This year, nine Oregon Department of Forestry seasonal firefighters switched over to become Oregon Department of Transportation winter road maintenance workers. Winter work can vary from driving snowplows to operating de-icing equipment and sanding roads, ODOT said.
The firefighters will return to wildland firefighting in Jackson and Josephine counties in late spring.
Called Fire and Ice, the joint staffing program between ODF and ODOT has helped keep experienced employees working all year since the 1980s, the agencies said.
"It benefits everyone — especially our local communities — because we're able to keep experienced staff year round between both agencies in highly specialized positions," said ODOT Interim District 8 Manager Jeremiah Griffin.
Griffin said the workers respond to dangerous situations in extreme conditions, no matter the season.
The Fire and Ice program is more important than ever this year amid a tight labor market that has left ODOT scrambling to fill roles throughout the state.
As of mid-November, ODOT had 1,100 snowplow drivers but 146 vacancies. That's about double the vacancy rate compared to last year, said ODOT Public Information Officer Gary Leaming.
"We're doing everything we can to fill those positions," he said.
ODOT shifts experienced snowplow drivers and other road maintenance workers around depending on where winter storms are causing trouble. But with more unfilled positions, the public should be prepared for less road maintenance, Leaming said.
"For the public, they should expect that state highways may not be as groomed as they would normally see. Snow may be on the road. Passes may be closed longer than usual after storms," he said.
Before heading out on a trip, drivers should visit tripcheck.com, ODOT's website that shows road conditions, accidents, construction and hazardous conditions. A network of road cameras feeds into the site, providing views of highways around Oregon.
Leaming advised people to make sure their vehicles are ready for winter driving. Bring enough supplies to stay comfortable if roads are closed and you have to spend the night in a community along your travel route.
Leaming said some seasonal firefighters decide to take permanent jobs with ODOT after trying out winter roles in the Fire and Ice Program. ODOT's full-time maintenance manager in Grants Pass came through the program.
"There's opportunity and growth there. We value them all highly," Leaming said.
For its part, ODF has been advocating for more year-round workers, especially as fire seasons grow longer in Oregon.
"We rely heavily on our seasonal workforce in the summer months to bolster our firefighting capabilities," said acting ODF Southwest Oregon District Forester Tyler McCarty. "While we're continuing to work toward additional year-round positions, our partnership with ODOT and the Fire and Ice program is an excellent opportunity to provide continuous work to our employees in a cost-effective way to the district, and ultimately, taxpayers."
For information about seasonal and full-time careers with ODOT, visit www.oregon.gov/odot/About/Pages/Career-Opportunities.aspx.
For information about seasonal and full-time careers with ODF, see www.oregon.gov/odf/aboutodf/Pages/jobs.aspx.
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