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Oregon: Firefighting Firsthand - Interviews with Oregon's Firefighters
Brainstorm Magazine ^ | August, 2002 | Bridget Barton

Posted on 08/17/2002 5:45:28 PM PDT by Ernest_at_the_Beach

Firefighting Firsthand Interviews with Oregon's Firefighters By Bridget Barton August, 2002

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Oregon has seen its share of forest fires, but Oregon has given its share to fight fires, in dollars, in equipment, in labor, and in lives. As July came to a close and we are experiencing what may be our worst fire season in Oregon, every available heavy lift helicopter in the Columbia Helicopters fleet was at work fighting fires throughout the West.

Columbia Helicopters, located in Aurora, Oregon, is the largest heavy lift utility helicopter operator in the world. Following are conversations with two men who know firefighting firsthand--from the sky.

Max Merlich is Vice President of Forest Operations, Columbia Helicopters. Max's desk is strewn with thick reports, books, and letters--from him to various legislators, to him from businessmen around the world. His job takes him to China, Alaska, South America, you name it and the pictures and photos tacked up on his office walls are a documentary of his workdays. Photos of horse-packing trips pinned on one bulletin board also tell the story of Merlich's time away from work.

BNW: What is the fire season? Merlich: It used to be June through September but we were going early this year--we had a fire in February I think. We've been fighting fire pretty steady for a month, month and a half.

BNW: How many helicopters are there working on a fire? Merlich: Sometimes one; sometimes ten. A big fire they tend to get a lot of them. And air tankers.

BNW: Are there other companies like yours? Merlich: The other companies that have type one helicopters are Erickson out of Central Point, Croman out of Medford, Superior out of Grants Pass, Carson's out of Pennsylvania, and Siller out of Yuma City, California. There's some on the East Coast, some out of Canada.

BNW: Who hires you? Merlich: It comes from NIFC, the National Interagency Fire Coordinator. They're out of Boise, Idaho. You bid on a "call when needed" contract every three years. You bid a price for your equipment and they publish a book that has everybody's equipment and everybody's price in it. They look and see who's closest. They've been out of equipment for quite some time.

BNW: You mean they've got more fires than they've got equipment among all these companies? Merlich: Yeah.

BNW: Some probably have equipment committed other places? Merlich: Yeah. We have some too. Logging has been so poor this year. We've only been running four or five jobs logging. We only have two jobs that are still running today and they're both up in Alaska. Everything else down here is fighting fire.

BNW: Who is in charge of the pilots on a fire? Merlich: They have what they call a helicopter manager--the Forest Service or the BLM, whoever is in charge of the fire. You can't do anything without the helicopter manager; that person becomes the boss. The pilot in command of the aircraft is ultimately in charge of the flight safety. Most of those guys have some experience. We don't have very many troubles. The biggest trouble is we have too many meetings in the mornings before we fight fires. Too much time talking, making big plans.

BNW: Where do you get the water? Merlich: Anywhere you can. Out of rivers when you're allowed to dip out of them. That was an issue in the fire up in Washington. Sometimes you can dip out of waterholes or natural lakes. We have 5,000 gallon dip tanks, big metal dip tanks, you stand them up on edge and then you roll them down the highway behind a pickup on a trailer and when you get to the fire you just tip the whole thing over. It's a big round tank and we fill that up with water out of a stream, and we have various size buckets we use under various size helicopters. Sometimes you can mix retardant right in there. If the water hole is too small we can pump water into the tanks and haul them.

BNW: Your company does helicopter logging also. How does the payment compare--logging vs. firefighting? Merlich: Firefighting is more lucrative. You know, logging you need a dozen timber fallers, a dozen guys for the woods crew, that's 24 men. You need log loaders, you need a lot more equipment, a lot more labor. There's a lot more involved. Fighting fire you need pilots, mechanics, you need a water bucket, a couple of pickups, a fuel truck, that's it.

BNW: How many people are cross-trained? Merlich: All our pilots are. A lot of the drivers are loggers, and they're qualified to drive heavy trucks. A lot of our guys have gone and gotten those licenses because they see this coming and know otherwise they're going to get laid off.

BNW: Tell me how these guys feel about how things are going in the forests? Merlich: Well, I think anybody who has anything to do with the forest would like to see it not burn and not see it get into the shape where it burns.

It's great revenue for us, but Mike (Fahey) who runs the company and our owner (Wes Lematta) have said, we'll take the revenue, but we'd rather see the forests be managed in the long run to be healthier and to eliminate the chances of these catastrophic fires.

That can be done a couple of different ways. One can be with prescribed burning. In most cases the forests are so loaded up with fuels that it's not an option--now it's going to escape and become a fire on its own. Or the forest can be treated with mechanical means--remove dead and down materials and trees that are growing too thick. That can be done lots of ways. A helicopter is one way.

Actually the forest health type jobs usually remove some of the lower value smaller timber and we don't really get in on as much of that as we'd like. But I know we feel real strongly that the management should take place in front of the fire. And then if the fire happens there, which it will happen, lightening or man-caused, the fire can be controlled on the ground instead of becoming these giant firestorms.

Once it gets going, in that side country especially, it just burns everything. Nothing grows there; it sterilizes the soil for a hundred years.

BNW: How much of your work is logging versus firefighting and other activities? Merlich: Logging used to be 80 percent, but it's dropped way down to less than 15 percent.

I think people generally would like to see a healthy forest, would rather see a little logging in there and clean it up. Get a little revenue off that, and end up with a forest for your kids and your kids' kids rather than spending all your money fighting fire and have it burn up, and end up with a mess.

To carry that one step further--the forest fires that happened last year--all this timber seldom burns up and goes away. It's still standing there dead. It's flash killed.

BNW: An example? Merlich: The Hash Rock Fire in the Ochoco National Forest--burned up a whole lot of country last year--all that material is standing there dead. All that stuff in five to 10 years will fall down and be on the ground. On the east side it won't rot; it just lies there. Most of it, if it's dead, needs to be removed and plant a new forest. And all of those projects have been stopped by the environmental movement. All of them have been sued. There hasn't been a single one up here--fire salvage--that's gone ahead in the past year. It's pretty irresponsible and short-sighted, but that's what's happened.

BNW: What is the point of environmental activists who want to prevent logging of fire-burned trunks? Merlich: A lot of them say fire is a natural occurrence in the ecosystem. So they say, you see a dead forest, but we see a new forest beginning. Some say that it's more harmful to go in after a forest fire and remove trees than to just leave them alone and let it recover naturally. They're worried about soil disruption. If you go to rehabilitate a fire and you take tractors through the streams and whatnot, then yeah it'll disrupt the soil.

But if you follow the Oregon Forest Practices Act, you're not going to be doing that. On the steeper slopes you can remove it with helicopters. It can be done very well and we've proved that we can do it many times.

An excellent example of what happens if you don't treat the fire is the Warner Creek Fire that happened in the Willamette. You can stand out there on a quiet summer day and hear trees and limbs falling and the fuel is just building up and building up out there on the ground. Sooner or later it's going to burn again. It's going to be another catastrophic fire and whatever trees have grown since then are going to be destroyed again, and you're going to have to start over one more time.

That's what happened to the Tillamook Burn. It burned several times partially because of leftover fuel. They didn't have the capacity to remove it all. That burned 360,000 acres, which is a big fire, but on the west side there's been a lot bigger fires.

The Siletz Fire was in 1849 and it burned between the Siuslaw and the Siletz River. It burned 800,000 acres--1,250 square miles, probably the entire Siuslaw National Forest. Then in 1865 the Silverton Fire burned 990,000 acres or 1,547 square miles southeast of Salem. That was the largest fire ever in Oregon. Probably took quite a few years for that to get going again.

The fires on the west side were huge and large. The cycle is the fuel builds up and it gets to a point and then it all burns and replaces itself. In this day and age, what would happen if we had a 1,546 square mile fire? People are not going to accept that--they might think it's good until it happens, and then they aren't. That's like burning from Redmond all the way to Salem or the Coast Range. That's how big that is. So our choices are to let it burn or to do something in advance of the fire--spend some money and get some products out, do a little thinning.

The Siuslaw, for one, is headed for that type of thing again. The trees are getting so thick. You don't do anything: there's no roads--when it catches on fire, it's going to burn.

BNW: Does the roadless plan take away your ability to fight fire? Merlich: We've done a lot of helicopter logging in roadless areas. A lot of these roadless areas have roads nearby. The Star Fire that burned in the El Dorado and Tahoe National Forest, that's in a roadless area. That's all been proposed for salvage. That's going to be very contentious.

It's just very simple to us. If you had a patch of land that was burned that had dead trees, dead stuff lying all over it, the normal person, I suspect, would go out and clean it up rather than risk their whole house burning down. But when it's government land, that's the difference. It's very frustrating.

BNW: What about prescribed burning? Merlich: The fuel loading is such that if you want to do prescribed burning there are an awful lot of rules. It used to be, when I was a young forester, in the spring and the fall we'd burn. As soon as things started to dry out a little it was time to burn. More popular was to burn in the fall. The fuel was pretty dry and then it started to rain. When you knew you had weather coming in, a big rainstorm forecast, that would not allow this thing to take off, you'd go ahead and burn.

Smoke was not an issue. It was more of an issue for field burning. Now DEQ and EPA will not allow burning until there's moisture content that will allow them to burn without making too much smoke. So they end up burning at times of year when they shouldn't be burning because the fire danger is too high. You've seen the Los Alamos fire escape and burn up all those houses. The year before was the one out of Lewiston, California that burned through the town of Lewiston. Both of those were prescribed burns. They were following the rules.

On sales in Idaho, for instance, we did what we call jackpot burning. After we did a forest health project or a thinning we'd go in and pile up brush. And then when it first started snowing we'd go in there and light it all on fire. The fire would burn but it wouldn't take off and run because there was snow on the ground, and yet the fuels are still dry. That's the time you should be doing it.

Fire is a good tool. But if you limit it to dangerous times of the year and this fuel buildup is so high, you risk losing everything you have by starting it that you're trying to save. And that's the position we're in and those are the types of fires, when they get going as wildfires on a hot windy day, that people get burned up, and houses. The Forest Service is pretty jumpy about putting people on the ground in those conditions. We lost three people last year in a helicopter wreck. And those girls got killed up there in that Omak fire last year. It's just crazy.

BNW: Environmentalists blame the fires on our history of fire suppression. Can you talk about that history? Merlich: Forest fire suppression got started in 1910 in Idaho--the fire burned I don't know how many millions of acres and killed a whole bunch of people. The public of course was lot smaller in the United States but they just got sick of it. They said we're not going to let this happen anymore. And they said we're going to fight fire. The Forest Service is going to have Smokey Bear and we're going to fight fire. And we did that for 100 years.

We did suppress fire out of these ecosystems and some of them, under some circumstances, after you remove some timber or after the brush builds up to a point, you need to clear the brush. You can use prescribed fire and use it safely and have a more open forest. These forests used to be open--you used to be able to ride a horse through them because we had frequent fires. But we stopped all that and we're paying a price for that now. The secondary price we're paying especially in the last 50 years is that we stopped thinning; we stopped commercial logging.

Pretty much people agree that fire is a useful tool but it has to be used right and it's been excluded a long time. And maybe that was a mistake. We did a lot of things in this country that were mistakes. We've ruined a lot of things. But the environment is pretty resilient. And the science is different now. In the 40s and 50s we tended to suppress fire and cut the big trees. That's what society demanded. Fire has been excluded, thinning has been excluded--either one will do the same thing. As a result if this catches on fire now, you're going to lose it all, you're going to lose the big trees, you're going to lose the little trees, all of it.


Jim Coates, Chief Pilot, Columbia Helicopters Jim Coates is surely as tough as his job, managing the pilots who fight the wildfires in our nation's forests. He flies too, but the chart that fills the entire wall behind his desk demands most of his time and attention--multiple columns track the fires, the equipment, the pilots, the flight hours, every small detail of every last job in progress. Careful with his words as he is with the details of his job, he measures the risk of showing too much pride in his men, and giving them the respect he clearly believes they earn every hour they fight fire.

BNW: Who does more to stop a forest fire, the firefighters on the ground or the pilots up in the air? Coates: It's a lot like war. The air assets are used to slow the advance to give people on the ground time to encircle it. Air assets allow ground personnel to get in there to do their job.

As air assets, the only time we can actually stop a fire is in the grass environment where we can get to it. Once it gets in timber, in difficult terrain, you have to plan what you're going to give up.

BNW: What were the Colorado and Arizona fires like earlier this summer? Coates: Lots of canyons, more rugged than Eastern Oregon. Steep canyons, vertical walls, some areas tough to tie in fire lines. You get to where you can get to. The terrain doesn't allow for a solid line. That fire line in Arizona was over 400 miles--it'll take you one to two hours to go from one end and circle it.

BNW: Are you the eyes of the fire? Coates: In plateau type areas we can see what's going on, but if there's lots of fuel, winds, and no moisture it means you just can't get it.

BNW: The fires move fast don't they? Coates: If the fires get going and get up to 20 to 100 acres or more they can actually explode. If the fire has a good head of steam, you can't fight it directly. You have to back off. You pick out anchor points, rock outcropping and you try to stop it there. You can't get in there. It's too hot, too turbulent, too smoky.

BNW: Would you talk more about the risks? Coates: Well, there are always times when the wind can shift or the fire actually shifts the wind. You have to come up with a plan and leave yourself a way out. The more experience you have you don't place yourself in a position where you get trapped.

BNW: Have you ever gotten in trouble in the air fighting a fire? Coates: I've gotten in close and gotten spit out by a little windstorm. And I've had a bucket not open?

BNW: What do you do when that happens? Coates: Well, you hope you plan so you can get your airspeed up. (Coates shrugs off any drama or danger.) You get familiar with up and down drafts. It can be rough but everybody knows the limits of the machine--what is too much wind, turbulence, heat. If it's too turbulent to place your drop, then it's time to go home.

BNW: How demanding is it? Coates: It can be physically demanding, flying with a lot of aircraft around you. The flying, the terrain, the fire itself. And it's mentally challenging. And you have to deal with the heat.

BNW: Who controls where you fly and where you fight the fire? Coates: That is the whole job of the guy circling above--the air attack--he;s in communication with the other pilots. The air attack controls the fire along with the helibase radio operators--he determines the frequencies you can use to talk back and forth.

BNW: Do all your pilots have a lot of experience fighting fires? Coates: Most of our guys have 12 years or more and 7,000-8,000 hours of flight time. Some of us have 20,000. Many of our pilots are ex-military; others are civilian trained. It used to be 50/50, but now it's more like 70/30. The average age of our pilots is mid-30s.

BNW: Do the pilots have certain requirements about time off? Coates: When you work for the Forest Service you can work 12 days and then two days off--up to 42 hours in a seven-day period. If you go over 36 hours you have to have a day off. The Forest Service has quite a few limitations based on experience with the fire environment. But here at Columbia Helicopters, regardless of the fire schedule we work two weeks on and one week off. Occasionally a guy will work through in an emergency.

BNW: When fires break out in Oregon, can you respond? Who decides where you are sent? Coates: Unfortunately, it would be the availability of the aircraft. If we're committed to the Forest Service you just can't pull off and go back to Oregon.

We do have a contract with the Oregon Department of Forestry and they do call us and ask if we have assets available--so they work with us.

Two years ago in Montana when were fighting fires one of our own pilot's house was threatened by wildfire so I let him stay home and fight his fire. He saved his home. Another pilot lost every stick of timber he owned in a fire in rural Oregon. A lot of our pilots live in rural areas of Oregon.

BNW: Your men are working the fires right now, today? Coates: They've been working real hard--coordinating every day, starting with the briefings, fire fighting, then de-briefing at night, working with the Forest Service. We're constantly trying to improve coordination for safety.

BNW: What's it like working with the Forest Service? Coates: Oh they have their rules and regulations but it works out fine. We meet to talk about improving things. We've worked to develop our equipment, and we try to be a more valued provider whether it's attitude or personnel... At the same time, we'd like to see the timber industry turned around.

BNW: Do you think that's possible in Oregon? Coates: We can make it work. As far as I'm concerned the helicopter is the most environmentally sensitive way to harvest timber. And you won't see the excesses of the 70s. We can make it a viable business not just for us but for these small towns that have virtually dried up and blown away--they've essentially become welfare towns because there are no good jobs there anymore.

BNW: Are things going to get substantially worse? Coates: I expect the danger to increase--we're always dealing with arsonists or careless campers. Then there's the ignition efficiency of the fuels. There are maps that predict lightening and the fuels information is available on websites such as the NICC (Boise website). I don't wish fire on anybody but you have to be ready to respond. You wouldn't have to have these superheroes if people would take the time to manage their public lands, take care of the land a little. It would be better if you wouldn't be out there losing millions of acres and structures every year.

BNW: What is the worst fire you've fought? Coates: Worst one is kind of a toss-up between the Oregon fires of '87 and the Yellowstone fire of '88. That was a firestorm--you just couldn't stop it. The '87 fire was from LaGrande to the California-Nevada border. We had quite a few machines on that one; some structures were lost without a doubt. It's hard for a person to understand how fast these fires can run--they can burn 15,000 acres in an afternoon.

BNW: Could that happen here? Coates: I see that potential in Eastern Oregon especially around the Blue Mountains and John Day because of the dead timber and bug kills. We saw a lot of fires in Eastern Washington. Montana was brutal last year. Montana is more like Eastern Oregon. In Western Oregon a lot depends on rainfall.

BNW: A lot of your men are loggers in the winter season. What do the helicopter pilots think about their work firefighting? Coates: Most of the pilots enjoy firefighting. There's a lot of satisfaction in being able to save structures. It's nice to know you did your part when things are still standing. They do not enjoy fighting fires from a personal standpoint. But it's a real challenge. It's very demanding flying. It has some risk regardless of what happens--you have to make a judgment. You say to yourself, I'm not going in that area--it's already too late.

BNW: What kind of guys make good firefighters in the air? Coates: It doesn't take a hero to do this job. It does take people who are intelligent and know the risks. It takes judgment and common sense. It's not dangerous if you do it the way it should be done. You're not a hero because you're trained to do it. When you're flying a helicopter, most people would rather fight fires than land at JFK--it's safer.

The hot dogs or the heroes in firefighting aren't welcome. The inherent dangers are already enough without adding to it. Safety of people on the ground and our fellows come first. If things get too risky, we call it a day and try later.


Danner Shoe Manufacturing, based in Portland, Oregon introduced the "Fireline" boot, new in 2002, to serve the needs of local and national wildlands firefighters. It's just one more group of Oregonians involved in the battle against forest fires now raging across the state. As might be expected by the record breaking wildfire season, the boots are leaping off the shelf. With over 5,000 pairs already sold, the Fireline may break the record for sales for Danner, a division of Wisconsin-based LaCrosse.

The Fireline is handcrafted in Portland specifically for use in fighting wildlands fires. The U.S.-made, all leather boot is similar to a logger boot. One of the differences--the Fireline is stitched with self-extinguishing Kevlar thread. The Fireline is also the only boot that meets and exceeds certification requirements of the National Fire Protection Association.

Danner boasted gross sales in 2001 of roughly $32 million. "Since its introduction in March," says the company's marketing manager Laurie Shaw, "the Fireline has leapt to the top of our occupational category. Just in the last three months we've sold over 3,500 pair. As a percent of total business it's small, but the fact that it's such a big piece of the category is significant."

Retailing at $250, sales to date of the Fireline represent over $1 million.

"We're sorry to see the forest fires and the destruction," Shaw says, "but we're happy to be providing a product that protects the people who are out there fighting them." Back

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Extended News; Government; News/Current Events; US: California; US: Oregon
KEYWORDS: ecokamikazis; enviralists; fireecoterrorism; floristryservice; forestfires; greenjihadaists; oregon; ruralcleansing

1 posted on 08/17/2002 5:45:28 PM PDT by Ernest_at_the_Beach
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To: Ernest_at_the_Beach
Forest fires have dropped from the news in the past few weeks. Are they contained or did Daschle's special deal for his state make the leftist media decide that forest fires probably wouldn't be helpful copy before the election?
2 posted on 08/17/2002 6:34:32 PM PDT by Freee-dame
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To: Freee-dame
They are still going:

Go here for today's report:

Bush Will Tour Fire Line [Oregon]

Grampa Dave has been bird dogging that area.

3 posted on 08/17/2002 7:07:42 PM PDT by Ernest_at_the_Beach
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To: Ernest_at_the_Beach; glock rocks; Grampa Dave
Thanks for the good post.
4 posted on 08/17/2002 10:16:19 PM PDT by B4Ranch
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To: B4Ranch
BNW: Your company does helicopter logging also. How does the payment compare--logging vs. firefighting? Merlich: Firefighting is more lucrative. You know, logging you need a dozen timber fallers, a dozen guys for the woods crew, that's 24 men. You need log loaders, you need a lot more equipment, a lot more labor. There's a lot more involved. Fighting fire you need pilots, mechanics, you need a water bucket, a couple of pickups, a fuel truck, that's it.

yikes. that's somewhat telling.

5 posted on 08/17/2002 10:27:01 PM PDT by glock rocks
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To: Ernest_at_the_Beach; EBUCK; AuntB; wanderin; blackie; Granof8; dixiechick2000; jolly roger
Thanks to Ernest for posting this artice from Brain Storm!

You can see how mis managed the forests are in Oregon before, during and after a fire by the Green Jihadists in charge of the Floristy Service, the former Forest Service.
6 posted on 08/17/2002 10:31:01 PM PDT by Grampa Dave
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To: Grampa Dave
Evening Grampa - rolled into the basin to the worst smoke conditions of the year. Place looks like a dust storm. Its good to be on this side of the Cascades, however. Enjoy seeing more SUVs than volkswagons.
7 posted on 08/17/2002 10:37:55 PM PDT by Archie Bunker on steroids
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To: Archie Bunker on steroids; AuntB; wanderin; blackie; Granof8; dixiechick2000; jolly roger; ...
This is from this Brain Wave Article posted by Ernest:

The fires on the west side were huge and large. The cycle is the fuel builds up and it gets to a point and then it all burns and replaces itself. In this day and age, what would happen if we had a 1,546 square mile fire? People are not going to accept that--they might think it's good until it happens, and then they aren't. That's like burning from Redmond all the way to Salem or the Coast Range. That's how big that is. So our choices are to let it burn or to do something in advance of the fire--spend some money and get some products out, do a little thinning.

The Siuslaw, for one, is headed for that type of thing again. The trees are getting so thick. You don't do anything: there's no roads--when it catches on fire, it's going to burn.

The last paragraph above describes what basically every government forest in Oregon has become due to the Green Jihadist, the miserable Watermelons since 1993. The trees are getting thick with no removal of trees or brush. There are no roads. So when they catch on fire, it's boom and they are often up to 10 to 20,000 acres of fast burn with nothing that can be done except try to contain them on the perimeters.

Will Oregon see one of these vast 1,546 square mile fires?

If not this year, an even bigger is coming soon to Oregon thanks to the Watermelons who have created these death zones with their anti American forest/tree hugging insanity. Time to lock the insane ones up and remove them from where they can hurt us.

8 posted on 08/17/2002 10:49:27 PM PDT by Grampa Dave
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To: Archie Bunker on steroids
Is the smoke coming from the new fire by Ashland or the new out of control one east of Glide? Or just from all of the fires.
9 posted on 08/17/2002 10:51:09 PM PDT by Grampa Dave
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