The Oregon Department of Forestry’s annual update to the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners began with a round of thanks for the county’s efforts during last year’s wildfires, including the sheriff’s office’s assistance with transporting a seriously injured ODF firefighter.
Toledo Unit Forester Matt Thomas and West Oregon District Forester Michael Curran delivered the update during Monday’s regular board meeting.
Their presentation singled out the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Manager Jenny Demaris, Public Information Officer Casey Miller, Newport Fire Chief Rob Murphy and North Lincoln Fire and Rescue Chief Rob Dahlman for their contributions during the Echo Mountain Complex wildfire.
In particular, Curran thanked the sheriff’s office for helping to get an injured ODF firefighter to the hospital.
Jim Gersbach, public affairs specialist for the department, told the News-Times Curran was referring to an incident that occurred early in the morning on Sept. 9, 2020. Firefighters were called to a blaze at about 2 a.m. but found their way on Highway 101 blocked by fallen trees near Depoe Bay. As several agencies worked to clear debris so emergency vehicles could pass, a portion of a tree struck an ODF firefighter.
Gersbach said sheriff’s deputies secured the firefighter in their heavy-duty armored vehicle and transported him to an area accessible to an ambulance.
Curran told commissioners, “He’s working on making a full recovery. Things are doing really good. I think he was hoping to come back this year and fight fires, but we’re still kind of in that waiting phase to see if he makes a full recovery.”
In department-level updates, Curran noted that State Forester Pete Daugherty resigned as of May 31. Nancy Hirsch will serve as interim state forester through October as a national search is conducted to fill the position.
The district forester also discussed the department’s priorities for the current legislative session, including a fix to how large fire response is funded and addressing capacity needs.
The West Oregon District comprises Lincoln County and parts of Benton, Polk and Yamhill counties, with Lincoln operations headquartered at the Toledo unit. According to Curran’s presentation, the unit is made up of a head forester, an office coordinator, two private-land foresters, a wildland fire supervisor and a seven-member seasonal fire crew. A Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy, Deputy Nick Vaille, also patrols state forest lands in the county in cooperation with the department.
Thomas, the unit forester, updated commissioners on progress replacing the department’s Toledo compound. He said they were evaluating a 5-acre site on Sturdevant Road, conducting due diligence and ensuring the location was buildable.
“Hopefully we’re going to have it purchased, best-case scenario, by the end of the summer, but we’re really hoping to have that done by the end of the year, for sure,” Thomas said. He said they’d contracted a local firm for the design and build phases.
Reviewing the previous fire season, Thomas said it was a “very, very light year,” with the exception of the 36-hours of the Echo Mountain fires.
In predictions for the 2021 fire season, Thomas said there were grim indicators. “We started off with a record-dry April, very minimal precipitation in May, and June is not looking the greatest so far either,” he said. “I think all of the county is in some stage of drought,” with current fuel moisture levels as low as are typically seen in mid-July.
With that outlook in mind, Chair Doug Hunt asked if there was anything the public could do to mitigate the risks.
“Minimizing and being careful with human-started fires,” Thomas said. “We don’t get tons of lightning fires in the Coast Range … we get most of our fire starts from human activity.”