Wildland fires shine light on mutual aid pact

The call went out at 10 a.m. Jan. 23: fire in Arch Cape.

Approximately 120 firefighters from local fire departments, rural fire districts and the Oregon Department of Forestry responded quickly. By 10:30 a.m., they were fighting to contain the fire near East Shingle Mill Lane in Arch Cape.

The 30-acre Shingle Fire and the 273-acre Falcon Fire, which was first spotted at 9 p.m. Jan. 23 near Falcon Cove in Tillamook County, were caused by slash burning on logged areas that intensified and spread because of unseasonably warm, dry weather and easterly winds that reached 50 mph.

The swift local and statewide response to the fires provides a glimpse at the complex web of agreements and partnerships that local agencies must navigate to fight large-scale wildland fires in Clatsop County.

“It’s a confusing issue,” said Seaside Fire Chief Joey Daniels, who estimates that he personally spent about 30 hours fighting the Arch Cape fires.

The Shingle Fire occurred on land owned by Stimson Lumber Company, and the Falcon Fire flared up across land owned by Stimson and Weyerhaeuser Company. The Oregon Department of Forestry expects the companies, as private landowners, to make “every reasonable effort” to suppress the fires before the forestry department is called in.

“Every landowner is required to provide every reasonable effort,” said Neal Bond, protection unit forester for the Astoria District of the Oregon Department of Forestry and incident commander of the Arch Cape fires. “As you can imagine, if you’re John Q. Landowner and you own 200 acres, ‘every reasonable effort’ is going to be very different than if you are any one of our major industrial landowners.”

“For us, ‘every reasonable effort’ means we have fire engines that we own, and all of our foresters have some fire training so we can fight fires,” said Scott Gray, Stimson’s western resource manager.

“And when we have a logging job during fire season, they (the companies) are required to have firefighting equipment on site,” including a tank that can hold at least 1,000 gallons of water, Gray said.

But Jan. 23 was well outside of fire season, which ran from July 3 to Sept. 25 last year, according to Bond, and the unusually dry weather caught the company foresters off-guard.

“On a nice, kind of wet January day, we set off the piles, the landing piles, and it was all fine until we got the very, very unusual dry wind, and it blew ashes onto the clear-cut unit,” Gray said. “I was talking to one of our foresters that night, he was on site, and I could hear the exasperation in his voice … ‘If this wind would just stop, we could get on top of this thing.’”

The stiff winds prolonged the fire fight, and Bond knew that state forestry department crews would need help past the initial attack, which is covered by the mutual aid agreement between the department of forestry and the local fire departments and districts.

As Bond describes it, a mutual aid agreement is an understanding between agencies that essentially means, “Whosever fire it is, we’re going to put the fire out as quickly as possible,” he said. “…We’re going to pool all the resources of the county together … so that we can get resources out more quickly and efficiently.”

The mutual aid agreement between the department of forestry and local agencies means that the local firefighters who battled the Arch Cape fires were protecting wildland outside of any rural fire protection district or any city limits.

Weyerhaeuser and Stimson — like every private forest landowner — pay a fire patrol assessment to the state forestry department for every acre of land they own.

The fire patrol assessment functions as insurance for the two companies and helps fund the forestry department’s patrols of the state’s private forest land.

This year’s fire patrol assessment for the forestry department’s Northwest Oregon region, which includes the Astoria, Forest Grove, North Cascade, Tillamook and West Oregon districts, is $1.0266 per acre for private landowners.

In fiscal year 2013-2014, Stimson paid the forestry department $18,689.90 for fire patrol in Clatsop County, while Weyerhaeuser paid $17,390.74 on its county properties, according to Clatsop County property records.

This “insurance policy” essentially ensures that if a fire starts on any of the thousands of acres of forest land, the Oregon Department of Forestry will be there.

“We can only cover so much ground, and they can only cover so much ground, so together we try to take care of it,” Gray said.

But, after the initial attack phase passed and it became clear that the Arch Cape and Falcon Cove fires demanded more attention, Bond knew that the department of forestry crew still needed as much help as it could get.

At that point, after the mutual aid agreement has passed and the extended attack phase has begun, the forestry department must then hire the firefighters as “administratively determined” employees, complete with an I-9 employment eligibility form and two valid forms of identification.

Once the extended attack phase has begun, the forestry department pays contracted firefighters $15 an hour, engine or tender operators $17 an hour, engine bosses $18 an hour and strike team or task force leaders $20 an hour.

The forestry department must also pay the local agencies an hourly rate for any equipment it uses; the rates vary — anywhere from $20 an hour to $150 an hour — depending on pump capacity, tank capacity and type of equipment.

Daniels estimates that Seaside Fire logged around 200 hour man hours. One of the department ’s trucks was there for roughly three days and “always had at least two people on it,” he said.

Daniels didn’t know precisely when the mutual aid agreement for the Arch Cape fires had ended, thus triggering the hourly rates.

“We’re kind of working through that,” he said, noting that he and other area fire chiefs would be meeting with forestry department officials soon. “They’re still trying to figure out the particulars on that.”

The department of forestry’s hiring of local firefighters was an uncommon enough step that many are trying to figure out the particulars.

“This is the first time I can remember, and I’ve been on the department for 31 years, where there’s been a large enough fire where they’ve hired extra manpower,” said Gearhart Fire Chief Bill Eddy.

Despite the unusual nature of the off-season fire and the byzantine web of agencies and agreements revealed by its response, the firefighters’ approach to the fire was pretty straightforward.

“They needed help, so we helped,” Eddy said. “Plain and simple.”

“From my standpoint, just being a volunteer, I just go where they tell me to go and do what they tell me to do,” said Chad Sweet, volunteer firefighter for Gearhart Fire and Rescue and Gearhart city administrator. “… Personally, I loved being there, loved the opportunity to put out some fire, and it was good to help the community. It gives us an opportunity to use our training and use the equipment.”

The Seaside Signal, 3.1.14. Link: http://goo.gl/flf6Fj

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