Wildfire

Northwest fire officials anticipate time-consuming adaptations to COVID-19 will lengthen the time it takes to suppress major wildfires.

Oregon has to prepare for a possible second spike of COVID-19 in the fall, fight wildfires while not spreading the infection to crews, and do it with budgets slashed by the state’s dire finances, lawmakers were told Wednesday.

What specific equipment, training and planning do state agencies need as “we find the time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?” said Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, chair of the committee.

Brown has asked state agencies to come up with a plan to cut 15 percent of their current budgets. It’s a baseline for discussions with the Legislature on how to save some areas from the chopping block while deepening cuts in other areas or increasing revenue. The result would be hammered out when Brown calls on lawmakers to return to Salem to deal with the crisis.

Andrew Phelps, Director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, said the coronavirus was the longest, biggest and most expensive disaster in state history.

The virus will still be circulating through the state population as the summer fire season starts.

Doug Grafe, Fire Protection Chief of the Oregon Department of Forestry, said COVID-19 was shaping the way the state will fight blazes. The key will be early fire suppression to hold down the number of crews that have to be deployed.

“We have to be aggressive on the initial attack,” Grafe said. “We have to keep large fires off the landscape.”

Grafe said that likely won’t be easy with about 90 percent of the state in drought condition and a hot summer forecasted.

Smokey conditions as in past summers would aggravate the breathing problems of those who are struggling with COVID-19’s attack on their lungs.

While officials will try to limit the infection from spreading by changing the way firefighters set up camp and keeping a tighter limit on who can come into a command center, the bottom line is that crews will not be held back if they are needed.

The Oregon National Guard will supply firefighting teams, but won’t be able to send in it’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters, which can dump up to 1,500 pounds of fire retardant at a time. They have been deployed overseas with 1,600 guard members mobilized to serve in U.S. Army anti-terrorism operations in 10 different countries around the horn of Africa. So have Chinooks based in Washington state. Oregon National Guard officials have made inquiries about obtaining the twin-rotor heavy helicopters from the east coast if necessary. While the first units will start returning to the state next month, the helicopters are not scheduled to return until next year.

“They will be back in time for the 2021 fire season,” said Dave Stuckey, Deputy Director, Oregon Military Department.

This year, the state will have to depend on HH-60M Blackhawk helicopters, which can carry 520 pounds of retardant per trip. Forest service and civilian contracted firefighting aircraft are also going to be involved in stopping any major fire.

Brian Young, president of the Oregon Emergency Management Association, which represents local response forces around the state, said the possibility of a pandemic has always existed, but most of the regional emergency management scenarios were geared toward floods, fires and at the top of the list, earthquakes.

“A year ago we were talking about Cascadia and about what that would do to the region,” he said.

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