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July 14, 2024

Despite mild fire season forecast, agencies tell Oregon leaders they need to invest in workforce

Controlled burns are used to clear out undergrowth that can fuel catastrophic blazes under dry, windy conditions. Officials told lawmakers they need more resources to expand forest thinning and burning and to speed up the process for getting burns approved. Photo by U.S. Forest Service
June 26, 2024

Agency officials said firefighters are hard to hire and retain, and are often left to sleep in their trucks or camp on the job due to a lack of housing

By Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon is likely to face fewer big wildfires this summer than in previous years, but a lack of rural housing, coupled with unstable and often low pay, continues to create firefighter workforce challenges across the state and region. 

That was a big part of the message from state and federal fire and emergency response officials, who discussed this year’s fire outlook and what they need at a meeting Monday at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. The Portland-based center is part of a larger wildfire prevention and response network that includes nine state and federal agencies.

In particular, they said they need more investment in technology —  including on satellite detection — along with consistent pay increases for wildland firefighters and stable housing options. Jeff Fedrizzi, the state fire management officer for the federal Bureau of Land Management, said many wildland firefighters live out of their cars while they’re on the job.

“We have folks living in the back of their rigs. They go to work and fight fires and camp out for two weeks and then come back and camp out,” he told Oregon U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, who hosted the meeting. All three are Democrats. 

The wildfire season in the Northwest can last from May through October, but typically the season is most intense from July to September. During that time, firefighters may end up fighting several big blazes at once, and that strains resources as officials share and coordinate equipment and manpower.

This year, the U.S. Forest Service has about 80% of the firefighters it needs in Oregon and Washington with 20% of jobs unfilled, according to Ed Hiatt, assistant director of operations for the regional office of the Service. He said it’s been like that for about the last six years even with a recent bonus in pay. 

Federizzi and officials from the Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon State Fire Marshal and U.S. Forest Service praised the $20,000 supplemental pay bumps many wildland firefighters have received since 2021 under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but they said the pay supplement needs to be made permanent and pay scales need to be updated. The supplemental money is only authorized through September of this year while agencies wait for a new pay scale to be finalized.

Wyden, Merkley and Bonamici committed to ensuring firefighter pay will continue to go up and to vote for bills investing in rural and wildland firefighter housing.

Summer conditions

Due to a wet El Niño winter, much of the state has had lower than normal average temperatures over the last three months compared to the 30-year average according to Jon Bonk, a meteorologist at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. In central Oregon and east of the Cascades, forecasters expect that temperatures will be above average and precipitation will be below average by September. Between mid-July and September, they also said that a La Niña weather system will move over the state creating warmer, drier conditions, mostly impacting eastern Oregon and Washington.

Investing in detection

The number of cameras able to detect wildfires in the state have grown, and Oregon is likely to surpass Nevada as the state with the second most cameras in the U.S., officials said.

Electric utilities are also setting up their own cameras, according to Chris Cline, fire protection division chief at the Oregon Department of Forestry. The department is deploying a new night vision helicopter around the Medford area, according to Cline, something done in California before but new to Oregon.

Still, more money is needed for federal agencies to connect with state and local agencies and share data, said Mariana Ruiz-Temple, state fire marshal, who advocated investment in a wildfire fusion center that can bring all stakeholders together.

Hiatt told the lawmakers that inflation is driving up the cost of a lot of the equipment they need.

“We can’t keep up with the increasing costs,” he said. Some parts needed for firetrucks can’t be delivered for several years, according to Hiatt. “By the time you’re paying that bill, it costs 50% more than when you originally we’re putting in the order. We’re spending a large percentage of our preparedness budget just on equipment.”

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.

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