Fire Preparedness Activities on the Rogue River-Siskiyou NF

As warm summer days encroach on the Rogue Valley, preparations and training are underway among the agencies that respond to wildfires. Helicopters have been seen in increasing numbers and firefighting crews are well into training and preparation for the season.

Dan Quinones, the Acting Chief and Fire Staff Officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest (RRSNF) says last year was exceedingly difficult for southern Oregon communities but for the Forest Service, it validated they were on the right path. “We have been working hard over the last few years to make significant improvements,” he says. “While it may not have been apparent because of the large Almeda and Obenchain fires which began on private lands, we did see it pay off on RRSNF lands where we had no significant starts. We have become extremely aggressive about recon - looking for new fires - and when the National Weather Service says fire weather is coming, we move quickly to get extra aircraft and people on early.”

Quinones adds that another focus area due to last year is collaboration with the Rogue Valley Fire Department (RVFD) fire chiefs. “We had always attended meetings as we had time, but now we know we really have to communicate and be a field level partner,” he said. “Since last summer, we have been involved with their local Incident Management Team, we have gone to all their meetings, and we provided aerial refresher training among other things.”

Preparedness is in full swing across the Forest, but although aircraft are visible across the valley, they are not agency owned or contracted. “We don’t have any aircraft on contract yet,” says Amanda Lucas-Rice, the Unit Aviation Officer. “Most of our aircraft contracts don’t start until June 1.” The aircraft seen and heard over the valley belong to Erickson Air Crane and Croman Corp who have maintenance and training runs to make before the season.

This year, funding became available to re-pave the apron at the Medford Tanker Base starting June 1, so during that time response duties will be shared in tandem with Klamath Falls tanker base and the VLAT (Very Large Air Tanker) base at the Medford Airport. “We will have coverage no matter what, beginning in June,” Lucas-Rice assures. “But we always have aircraft we can call if there is a need before that, even if they are not sitting right here in Medford.”

Deputy Fire Staff Robert Budge says the Forest Service is getting ready right now in more ways than just aircraft. There are pre-season meetings with cooperating agencies, monthly meetings with the Rogue Valley Fire Chiefs, onboarding seasonal workers and crews, and doing readiness reviews. “These reviews check everything,” Budge says, “that the trucks are ready, the firefighters have their red-cards, that everyone has safety refreshers, we do some simulations, and we practice for medical emergencies on the fire line.”

Budge says not that much has changed since last year except there is no longer a need to prepare for COVID-19, that work has been done. What’s interesting he says, is that most people don’t realize the RRSNF didn’t have any significant fires that started last summer. “Fortunately for the Forest, none of the big fires like Alameda and Obenchain, began on the RRSNF. Those fires were on BLM, ODF and private lands,” he pointed out, “so we were not primary responders.”

Quinones added that RRSNF employees were still drawn to help. “We are members of the community and we live here, plus we had people and equipment available,” he says, “so we provided aircraft support to both fires, we did work to reduce fuel loads on federal land adjacent to the fires and we stood ready to respond if Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) needed our help to cover behind them.”

The Slater Fire, however, was another story and while it started on the Klamath National Forest, it came roaring onto the RRSNF with a 12-mile fire front. “The interagency cooperation on Slater was unprecedented,” Quinones says. “There was no posturing, no my mission/your mission, no worrying about who’s stuff was being used. Everyone just came together willing and glad to help protect the communities, the people, and the land. That’s something I plan to capitalize on.”

Both Budge and Quinones say they can tell there is still PTSD in the communities around fires. Lots of phone calls come every time there is smoke visible and while the aircraft make people feel protected, they also make people jumpy. “We have people in the office,” he says, “who are still suffering from the stress and loss of last summer and not necessarily fire people. Like everyone else, our people are still working to find work life balance.” Quinones says the best thing people can do is be prepared for this summer which could also be serious. “I hope people will take the time to read about and understand the Ready, Set, Go program for evacuation and understand what it means when someone says you are at one of those levels. That would help firefighters a lot and mean fewer people would have to learn the hard way.”