Ore. 2019 fire season slow, private firefighters pay affected
A wet spring, mild summer and few thunderstorms all contributed to a lack of large wildfires in the state
By Dylan Darling
The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
OAKRIDGE, Ore. — The call finally came this past Monday. After months of waiting, Inbound's contract firefighter hand crew had a wildfire to fight.
The 20-person team rolled 485 miles from Oakridge to the Henthorne Fire in Northern California, put in four days and were back Thursday night. It wasn't much work, but at least it was some work in what has been a slow wildfire season for private firefighters in Oregon, said Dillon Sanders, owner of Inbound. Federal and state firefighting agencies bring in private firefighters, such as those with Inbound, on contract every fire season to support their own staff firefighters.
"It's just been a tough season," he said. " ... It's an agricultural business, and the weather didn't cooperate."
Sanders, who is also president of the Oregon Firefighting Contractors Association, said that a wet spring, mild summer and few thunderstorms all contributed to a lack of large wildfires in the state. That was good news for air quality throughout the summer in Eugene, Springfield and elsewhere around Oregon. But bad news for private firefighters waiting on a blaze to earn a paycheck.
There have been 1,950 wildfires in Oregon this year, as of Tuesday, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. Combined, the fires burned more than 48,293 acres, or more than 75 square miles.
"So far in the 2019 fire season, we have seen about the average number of fires," said Ron Graham, deputy chief of fire protection for the Department of Forestry. "Thanks to favorable conditions and successful initial attack, our acres burned are below average for the year."
In contrast, fire season 2018 in Oregon had 2,019 wildfires that burned 897,263 acres, or more than 1,400 square miles. That's more than 18 times more acres burned in 2018 compared to 2019. The Terwilliger Fire alone covered 11,555 acres, about 18 square miles, in late summer 2018 on the Willamette National Forest.
The largest fire this year was the Milepost 97 Fire, which spread from an illegal campfire on July 24 about a mile south of Canyonville, according to the Department of Forestry. The fire burned along Interstate 5, charring 13,119 acres, or more than 20 square miles.
For Inbound, this year was the slowest since 2010. That year, firefighters with the company had only three days of work in Idaho. This year, it was those four days in California, just this past week. Inbound has a roster of 100 to 220 firefighters each year, including two 20-person hand crews and 15 fire engines.
"We train everybody up, and then we wait for the call," he said.
Fire season 2018 was much busier — Sanders said Inbound firefighters worked about 130 days. Rookie firefighters made about $15,000 for that fire season. This year they were lucky to make about $1,000.
During a slow fire season, such as this year, the focus shifts to training, said Christopher Snortland, the operations manager for Dust Buster Plus. The private firefighting company is based in Eugene and has more than 450 firefighters, including 16 hand crews.
"Each of our crews averaged 6.8 shifts on fire this year," he wrote in an email. "All work was performed in late August and early September in Oregon. Last year we worked in multiple states and averaged approximately 600% more days on fire."
Snortland noted that most of the company's work this year has been on relatively small fires.
In Lane County, a couple of the most noteworthy fires this year burned few acres. The Dowens Fire burned 80 acres near Cottage Grove in May and the Pisgah Fire burned just more than 50 acres on Mount Pisgah, a popular hiking hill southeast of Eugene, in August.
Fire figures for the Willamette National Forest, which is based in Springfield, reflect the statewide trend for 2019. The number of fires is about average, but the burned acreage is well below average.
There have been 126 fires this year and combined they burned just under 50 acres, according to Willamette National Forest data. Over the past three decades, the Willamette has had about 115 fires per year and more than 4,800 burned annually.
"The last few years (have had) a lot more activity compared to the average," said Chiara Cipriano, spokeswoman at the national forest.
©2019 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.)