A new tool for battling wildfires

With the return of wet weather and, in particular, periods of heavy rainfall this week, it’s quite likely that most people aren’t thinking about the threat of Oregon wildfires right now.

But the state received good news this week when U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden announced that the Forest Service has awarded “call when needed” contracts to providers of wildfire-fighting large air tankers. This is an important tool for fighting wildfires in our state.

Oregon dodged a bullet this past fire season — 2019 saw much less destruction than in the prior two years.

The actual number of fires starting this year wasn’t all that much lower, but we didn’t have the conditions for explosive growth of those fires. By comparison, in 2017, more than 1.1 million acres were affected by wildfire in Oregon and Washington, and 2018 saw 1.3 million acres affected by fire. This year, just over 200,000 acres were scorched across both states, a nearly 84 percent drop from the two previous years.

But the threat is certainly still there. The potential for destructive impacts from fire has not lessened. And with the amount of forest land in Lincoln County, that danger certainly includes our area. That’s why the announcement that large air tankers will be available in the future is good news for the region. These aircraft can deliver 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of fire retardant to support firefighters on the ground. Also, under the contracts, the Forest Service can put approved aircraft into service when needed and don’t have to pay for them when they’re not.

Wyden said, “Oregonians need the broadest possible range of options when it comes to fighting wildfires that threaten their lives, homes and businesses. These contracts will help the Forest Service fight fires more effectively by providing access to next-generation large air tankers at lower rates, saving money as well for taxpayers.”

Walden commented, “Oregonians have had enough of smoke and wildfires. These contracts for large air tankers will help ensure the Forest Service has additional tools to combat and contain these fires.”

And Merkley added, “Every Oregonian has experienced the consequences of wildfires, from the damage to our farms and forests to the dense blankets of smoke compromising our health. That’s why my colleagues and I urged the Forest Service to approve the use of large air tankers to help our state stay safe in the face of dangerous blazes.”

It really seems like a no-brainer to us, and we’re not exactly sure what the holdup was on this issue — agency officials first solicited for contracts in July 2018, but by September of this year had not yet selected any providers, prompting Oregon’s congressional delegation to get involved.

So even though the next fire season is still a long way off, it’s nice to know we have this important asset available to us when the need arises. It has the potential to make a huge difference in the outcome.