Special Colo. plane helps Oregon catch fire starts small

Can find heat sources before any smoke shows

SALEM, Ore. -  With over 14,000 lightning strikes recorded as thunderstorms swept across Oregon between August 4 and 12, firefighters suppressed 88 lightning fires on lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry. As lightning fires often start in remote areas, ODF also used specialty aircraft to aid in early detection efforts, including a special plane from Colorado.  

After successful efforts in Oregon’s severe 2015 fire season, ODF again contracted with Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control to bring one of their Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA) to Oregon to assist with finding difficult-to-detect fires.

The specialty aircraft flew across much of Eastern Oregon on Sunday and Monday. Early detection is critical to ODF’s mission keeping fires at the smallest possible size, which reduces the financial impact to landowners and Oregonians and limits impact to natural resources such as air, soil, and water quality, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic and recreation values.

Four fires were detected during Sunday’s flight in ODF’s Central Oregon District.  They were single-tree fires or small spots with little to no visible smoke. Due to the remote location and heavy vegetation cover, it is highly likely these fires would have increased in intensity as temperatures warmed, officials said.

“Looking at the location and fuel types where those fires were detected, it’s not a good feeling to imagine what they could have been,” said Mike Shaw, Eastern Oregon area director for ODF. 

Equipped with cameras and software specially adapted for use in wildfire applications, the MMA system uses a sensor ball with an infrared camera and two color cameras (wide and narrow) to detect heat sources from several miles away. 

While infrared technology is used to detect heat sources, the MMA is best utilized during the day, when the color cameras can be used to collect information regarding terrain, fuels and fire behavior. This data, combined with information on fire locations and perimeters, is transmitted directly to resources on the ground.

The MMA operates at approximately 20,000 feet, well above tactical aircraft fighting wildfires, do there is no impact to firefighting operations,  the agency said.

The specialty aircraft will be flying across southwest Oregon in the coming days. ODF’s Southwest Oregon District has already been using some of its assigned aircraft to look for fires resulting from the more than 1,600 lighting strikes that hit the area last week.

In addition to detection, aircraft have greatly assisted crews on recent fires in the district by dropping retardant on steep, remote terrain and giving firefighters a broad, aerial view of what they’re fighting.

The MMA was contracted using severity funding from a special purpose appropriation from the Oregon Legislature. Severity funding supports fire suppression activities that are outside the normal ODF districts’ budgeting and activities. 

Eastern Oregon received over 13,000 lightning strikes as numerous thunderstorms moved across the region in the last ten days. Firefighters took action on 70 fires across the 6 million acres of land protected by ODF and Walker Range Forest Patrol in the Eastern Oregon Area. 

Only one grew larger than 10 acres, and the majority were suppressed as single trees or less than a tenth of an acre. ODF firefighters also assisted federal partners and rural fire departments with fires on their jurisdictions to limit fires across the landscape. 

Jamie Paul, Eastern Oregon Area assistant director, praised area fire crews for their efforts and hard work: “Responding to so many fires in such a short time period, and keeping them small demonstrates how dedicated and aggressive ODF firefighters are to initial attack fire suppression.” 

In anticipation of these thunderstorms, additional resources were requested to support the District and Association personnel.   These resources included engines from local rural fire departments, the Oregon Military Department, and ODF in Western Oregon, as well as contract bulldozers.

In addition to district and association staffing and these move-up resources, severity aircraft specially funded by the Oregon Legislature were instrumental in the success of initial attack during this lightning event.  These aircraft include single engine air tankers, a heli-tack platform capable of delivering firefighters with gear quickly to remote fires, and helicopters capable of dropping water to cool hotspots so that ground troops have time to engage.

Reconnaissance planes and spotters were effective in finding fires immediately following the storms, and were utilized to provide intelligence back to fire managers and crews as they navigated into the fires. Detection cameras across the Eastern Oregon Area are manned with specialized lookouts trained to spot and locate fires through this remote technology.

In the Central Oregon District, detection camera operators were responsible for discovery of about 20% of the fires in the district during this lightning event. These early detections allow firefighters to take action quickly while the fires are still small, reducing exposure for firefighters and damage to natural resources as well as financial impacts to landowners and Oregonians.   

In addition to the fires on ODF-protected lands, rangeland fire protection associations, volunteer firefighting entities in Central and Eastern Oregon’s high desert and range country,, suppressed more than 30 fires during this time period.

Year to date, there have been 114 lightning fires in the Eastern Oregon Area burning just over 1,300 acres, compared to the 10-year average of 107 fires burning just over 12,000 acres.  A total of 91 human-caused fires have burned 374 acres year to date , compared to 102 fires burning 2,630 acres for the 10-year average.

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