Prescribed burning underway in western Oregon

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service last weekend participated in prescribed burns for habitat improvements and ecological health at the Howard Buford Recreation area near Eugene.

KEZI-TV reported that the Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah, Lane County Parks, and other conservation partners including the FWS and Rivers to Ridges worked on the burn; about 30 firefighters burned some 65 acres.

“Fire has been a really important component of the landscape,” said Ed Alverson, coordinator for Lane County Natural Areas. “And the native species that live here — the plants and the animals — are adapted to fire. In fact, burning by Calapooia People over thousands of years has helped create this species-rich landscape.”

Mt. Pisgah summit at sunset -- HikeOregon photo
Mt. Pisgah summit at sunset in Lane County, Oregon — HikeOregon photo

Mt. Pisgah is within the recreation area and is visible for miles  across the Eugene-Springfield area. It’s a favorite local destination; along with the 118-acre arboretum, the park includes some of the last remaining sizable, contiguous, native oak savannah prairie in the valley. Approximately 17 miles of trails lead up and around the 1,518-foot butte, with 360-degree views of the surrounding valley and mountains. Some trails are open for equestrian use; some are closed during seasonal prescribed fires.

The South Bottomlands burn on Sept. 19, 2023. (Photo courtesy Lane County Parks)
The South Bottomlands burn on Sept. 19, 2023. (Photo courtesy Lane County Parks)

Prescribed fire helps maintain native species in the area and helps prevent the open prairie conversion to closed forest land. Fire improves soil fertility and removes the buildup of thatch, along with reducing the risk of high-intensity fires in the future. A small wildfire near Mt. Pisgah was quickly contained early in August; the area of a 50-acre fire in 2019 now illustrates the habitat resilience in a post-fire area.

“Howard Buford Recreation Area supports one of the largest remaining blocks of prairie and oak habitats in the Willamette Valley,” said Alverson. “Fire is a regular and natural part of the environment of these habitats. We work closely with Lane Regional Air Pollution Authority and our Rivers to Ridges partners throughout the area to make sure the burn is safely implemented and will not disrupt the community.” More than a dozen prescribed fires have been conducted in the area since 1999 and more are planned in the upcoming weeks.

The annual Mt. Pisgah fall plant sale is scheduled for this weekend —  native plants will be sold on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Native Plant Nursery. The Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah nurture over 100 native plant species in their nursery. (541)674-3257

Buford Park map
Buford Park, 34639 Frank Parrish Rd., Eugene, Oregon

Oregon governor meets with USFS and utilities

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek on Monday joined U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, state agency leaders, and members of the Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, including representatives from PGE, Pacific Power, Avista, and rural electric cooperatives for a roundtable discussion about national strategies that can support local efforts to reduce the catastrophic risk of wildfire.

“Wildfire threatens our natural areas, our homes, and even our lives,” Kotek said. “Today, we committed to expanding our coordination across large and small utilities and federal partners to help ensure that Oregon meets the highest possible standard for wildfire prevention and response.”

Oregon 2020 fires
2020 fires — Oregon State Fire Marshal photo.

Pacific Power serves much of Oregon and has suffered in court over its powerlines, fire ignitions, and legal liability for homes and property destroyed by wildifres its lines started. Simon Gutierrez with Pacific Power said the company created a “robust wildfire mitigation plan” that’s been in place since 2019, “designed to minimize the risk of our equipment potentially igniting a wildfire.”

But in the fall of 2020, with east winds picking up toward the end of a long, hot and dry summer, Mill City Fire Chief Leland Ohrt was dispatched to a home not far from his own, where a tree branch had fallen on a powerline and started a small brush fire. Ohrt, a VFD chief in a small town in western Oregon’s Cascades, hosed down the fire and then drove over to Schroeder Road, where another tree branch had fallen over another powerline and was still arcing sparks into the dry fuels below. Ohrt couldn’t stop the sparking, so he hosed the utility lines with water until they exploded and de-energized themselves.

Those two incidents initiated a frenzied 48 hours for Ohrt, acccording to an OPB report, and he was later recognized for his efforts to save Mill City as the fires destroyed thousands of homes down the Santiam Canyon and across other parts of western Oregon. Ohrt watched Pacific Power’s utility lines start those fires, but he took the stand in court in May of 2023 to defend the company in a class-action trial against Pacific Power.

Back in 2019, Governor Kate Brown recommended that utilities prepare risk-based wildfire procedures in a report on wildfire response. She then issued an executive order that  directed the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to evaluate utility protection plans, leading to Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) requirements.

Pacific Power complied, setting up a formal plan for PSPS — a temporary measure that de-energizes lines to keep people and communities safe. But as Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported, in an historic legal decision, a Multnomah County Circuit Court jury found Pacific Power (PacifiCorp) liable for around $90 million to western Oregon residents who lost homes and property after the company failed to shut down power despite multiple warnings about severe windstorms over the 2020 Labor Day holiday.

Pacific Power court exhibit
One of the exhibits at trial of the class-action suit against Pacific Power (PacifiCorp)

KTVZ News reported that the USFS met this week with Governor Kotek and utility companies to discuss mitigation since the passage of Senate Bill 762. Public safety power shut-offs are now a routine practice in Oregon, fire mitigation plans are annually submitted to the Oregon PUC for approval, and pre-fire season meetings with utilities and first responders occur annually.

A report earlier this month by the Source Weekly examined the issue of whether utility companies should shut off power to their lines during periods of high fire risk. In the wake of devastating wildfires ignited by powerlines — particularly in Oregon during the Labor Day 2020 fires and more recently in Hawai’i — utility companies must prioritize and clarify their planning for power shutoffs.

The report by Source Weekly has additional details about companies’ plans for wildfire shutoffs.

Oregon’s Tyee Ridge Complex almost 3000 acres

The Tyee Ridge Complex consists of 19 fires ignited by lightning on the evening of August 24. About 200 people have been evacuated.

As of August 29, the fires had burned 2,899 acres in the hills around the community of Umpqua, approximately 10 miles west of Sutherlin. According to a report by KPIC-TV, the fires are under unified command with the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) Team 1 and the Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Red Team. The fires are in rugged, steep, and difficult terrain, but crews are making progress and the fire is now estimated at 5 percent containment.Tyee Ridge Complex map

Firefighters have been working since Tuesday night with very active fire behavior on the Cougar Creek and Lighthouse fires. Active fire behavior is predicted  till cooler conditions and expected showers arrive.

On Wednesday firefighters worked on a number of spot fires that Had crossed containment lines.

Water and retardant drops are supporting ground crews in areas of steep or inaccessible terrain. Single-engine airtankers and helicopters worked closely with heavy equipment operators and hand crews. Among the aircraft were two Chinook CH-47 helicopters from the Oregon Army National Guard.

To the north, the Big Tom Fire saw more active fire, while there was increased mop-up on the Hardscrabble, Blue Hole, and Yellow Point fires, all moving toward patrol status in coming days, according to a KPIC report.

Oregon State Fire Marshal task forces worked around structures, installing sprinkler kits along Hubbard Creek, Briarwood Road, and the Lighthouse community. They are integrated with ODF crews to HELP in cutting line and protecting homes.

Fuel moistures are well below average for this time of year. There is a heavy dead and down component to the fire area, with fuels burning actively and intensely. Even though humidity recoveries are good to excellent overnight and moderate during the day, heavier fuels are slow to respond. The steep terrain is also a factor in fire behavior that accelerates upslope fire runs, torching, and potential for spotting.

Tyee Ridge Complex at night
Nighttime on Tyee Ridge:  Headlamps of firefighters on night shift trace a bright trail beneath the rising moon on one of the fires of the Tyee Ridge Complex. Photo ©2023 Dan Morrison, photojournalist at the University of Oregon.

Currently the evacuations are: Level 3 (Go) from the 11000 block of Hubbard Creek Rd. to Millwood Dr., Level 2 (Set) from Hubbard Creek Rd. from Millwood Dr. to Melqua Rd., and Level 1 (Ready) for Tyee Road at the intersection with Rock Creek Rd. to Fanchin Lane. Closures: Hubbard Creek Road at Millwood Drive.

KPIC has a 5-star photo gallery by Dan Morrison.

Fires in Oregon draw resources from California and evacuate residents

The Lookout Fire just north of McKenzie Bridge had burned 2,720 acres by Tuesday and was at zero percent containment. At an online briefing, Northwest Team 6 IC Tyson Albrecht said they are working with crews and aircraft to build line along a logging road. As of August 16, the fire was at 3,710 acres. KEZI-TV reported that the small mountain communities along the McKenzie River are struggling with more of the Lookout Fire’s smoke drifting across the region.

Lookout Fire at night
Lookout Fire at night August 13, inciweb photo

Smoke grounded aircraft yesterday and hotshots and structural strike teams from out of the area worked on protecting houses and powerlines. Doug Epperson with IMT 6 said they’re trying to keep the highway open for as long as possible.

“They started last night with some back burning that will continue today to remove fuels between where the fire is,” Epperson said. “We are doing everything so we can keep that highway open … our goal is to not have to close it.”

Around 400 personnel are working on the fire, with another 60 to 80 personnel joining each day.

smoke visible from Takatee Golf Course
Smoke visible from Tokatee Golf Course on August 13, inciweb photo

The fire grew quickly on Sunday, according to an OPB report, and prompted evacuations for residents north of Highway 126 near McKenzie Bridge.

There is a Red Cross shelter at Lowell High School; the IMT has scheduled a community meeting Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at McKenzie High School in Vida.

Also east of Eugene, the Bedrock Fire on Monday was shaded by heavy smoke, lowering temperatures slightly and moderating fire behavior. Helicopters on the Bedrock were also grounded.

The Bedrock Fire is at 26,154 acres with about 20 percent containment. Crews have been holding the fire within containment lines on the northern, eastern, and southern portions of the fire, which has nearly 1100 personnel assigned. The Oregon State Fire Marshal’s Office has assigned 8 task forces for interface structural protection, and OSFM resources were joined by a California Office of Emergency Services (Cal-OES) task force yesterday. They’re doing surface prep, structure triage, and overnight patrols. Crews also worked on sprinkler installations and vegetation clearing on the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest compound.

Evacuation Centers: There is an evacuation center for people and small pets at Lowell High School for evacuees from both the Bedrock and Lookout fires. A large animal shelter is setting up at the Lane County Fairgrounds in Eugene.

There is a current Level 3 (GO!) evacuation ordered for:

        • Taylor Road
        • North Bank Road
        • Areas north of Hwy 126 between Blue River Reservoir Road and Drury Lane
        • Mona Campground
        • Lookout Campground
        • HJ Andrews Experimental Forest headquarters

Firefighters are building line along the western edge of the fire, clearing and improving roads, and putting in dozer line. KPIC-TV reported that on Tuesday, firefighters were defending homes in Big Fall Creek.

sawyer on the Bedrock
Sawyer on the Bedrock Fire, inciweb photo

The fire started near Bedrock Campground on the Middle Fork Ranger District of the Willamette NF on July 22. Unusually dry fuels, steep slopes, and gusty winds contributed to rapid fire growth.

Northwest IMT 13 assumed management on July 25. On August 6, Northwest IMT 12 transitioned in, then on August 7 the IMT 12 also took over management of the Salmon Fire near Oakridge.

Oregon fires 0816
Oregon fires 0816

The IMT has scheduled a community meeting for the Bedrock and Salmon Fires tomorrow, August 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Pleasant Hill School Community Center.

Night burn on the Bedrock
Firefighters on a tactical firing operation at night. Inciweb photo. They are watching for spot fires across the fireline.

The Salmon Fire is just 135 acres and about 80 percent contained. Firefighters are patrolling the perimeter and the incident’s recently shown minimal fire behavior. Resources include 3 engines, 1 crew, 1 watertender, and aircraft shared from the Bedrock Fire.

UPDATE — ROAD CLOSURE: Meanwhile, part of Hwy 199 south of Cave Junction is closed; CALTRANS has closed U.S. 199 at the Oregon-California border.

Hwy 199 closure
Hwy 199 closure south of Cave Junction. Check for updates at

According to Oregon DOT, the closure is in response to wildfire activity in the area, and the estimated duration of the closure is unknown. No local detours are available.

The Head Fire on the Klamath National Forest is one of a couple dozen in the area recently ignited by lightning. “This has been a fire that has moved extremely quickly,” Forest Supervisor Rachel Smith told The Associated Press. “Just in a matter of a couple of minutes yesterday afternoon the fire grew from just 50 acres to nearly 1,500 acres.”

Direction Impacted: Both
Comments: Lone Mountain Rd is CLOSED to all but local traffic from US 199 to the California border because of a wildfire in the area.
Do not use Lone Mountain Rd as a detour for the US 199 closure.
Agency: Josephine County
Public Contact: Brent Atkinson  (503) 986-3977

Oregon firefighter killed Friday

A 21-year-old federal firefighter was killed in an on-duty vehicle accident on Friday, August 4, near Powers, Oregon. Benjamin Sapper from Boulder, Colorado was a handcrew member on the Gold Beach Ranger District of the Rogue River – Siskiyou National Forest in southwest Oregon.

“This is a devastating loss of one of our own Gold Beach firefighters,” District Ranger Kailey Guerrant told KATU-TV. “We have a tight-knit community on the Gold Beach and Powers Ranger Districts, and we stand together in grief and support for his family, friends, and fellow firefighters during this heartbreaking time.”

Benjamin Sapper
Benjamin Sapper photo courtesy USFS

Benjamin graduated from Boulder High School and the University of Colorado with a degree in Applied Mathematics.

KDRV-TV reported that Sapper was on duty and traveling with his crew when their rig was involved in a vehicle crash. Coquille Fire & Rescue said the vehicle left the roadway above the community of Powers.

Sapper was an avid baseball player, chess player, and skier who planned to attend grad school in earth sciences this fall at the University of British Columbia.

Our sincere condolences to his family and friends, and to his co-workers on the Gold Beach crew.

Bedrock Fire over 6000 acres

As the Bedrock Fire near Fall Creek Reservoir east of Eugene, Oregon burns on the Willamette National Forest, officials are asking the public to help with tips to determine who or what started the fire.

According to a report by KLCC Radio, the fire was called in on Saturday, July 22, and grew to 300 acres by the next day. Crews worked overnight on the fire — and to protect nearby buildings on private land. A Type 2 team took over Sunday evening.

Named for the nearby Middle Fork Ranger District’s Bedrock Campground, the fire put up enough smoke on Tuesday to temporarily pause air ops, but firefighting helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft returned later. Two CL-415s scooped water from Lookout Point Lake, and additional aircraft have been ordered.

Chris Pietsch shot of Erickson Aircrane on the Bedrock Fire.
Chris Pietsch with the Register-Guard caught this superb shot of an Aircrane working the fire.

KEZI-TV reported that crews are building lines along the ridges between Little Cowhorn Mountain and Fawn Peak, and are assessing firelines that remain from previous incidents (including the Cedar Creek Fire) to help in containment.

Fire Behavior Analyst Dean Warner said the fire has been more active than expected in this area for late July. “Fuels are abnormally dry for this time of the season due to drought,” he said. “Drier fuels take less energy to ignite, and burn more rapidly and intensely than wetter fuels.”

Fire crews are working to establish firelines along the ridgelines between Little Cowhorn Mountain and Fawn Peak.

Little Cowhorn Mountain Lookout to the north of Bedrock Fire. The main body of the structure has been wrapped with fire-resistant material.
Little Cowhorn Mountain Lookout to the north of the Bedrock Fire. The main body of the structure has been wrapped by crews with fire-resistant material.

The fire is currently sized at 6,161 acres. Smoke from the fire is spreading into central Oregon, affecting air quality as far east as Bend. Weather conditions are expected to remain hot and dry, which could exacerbate the fire’s spread, according to the Northwest IMT 13 headed up by Brian Gales and Eric Riener, which took over on July 25.

Bedrock Fire map
Bedrock Fire map

Bedrock Fire mapExtreme fire behavior and gusty winds have pushed the fire to rapid growth, and mixed ownership of private and federal lands coupled with old fire scars means a checkerboard of fuel types. Mixed age classes of timber from slash and young managed stands to late seral stage timber are spread across the landscape, with light dry lichen moss draped in the canopies, exacerbating spotting. Steep slopes in the area have encouraged uphill runs, so the fire gets established in crowns and makes for spotting up to ¾ mile from the fire’s edge.

Afternoon winds have driven the fire to spread up drainages — including Alder, Hehe, and Fall creeks to the northeast and in the south at both Andy and Rubble creeks. As fire has moved into old burn scars, the intensity decreases, but abundant fine fuels (likely resulting from this year’s late rainy start to the season) maintain the fire’s spread.

On Thursday, it’s predicted that consistent weather conditions will mean persistent fire growth in the active drainages. Fire spread is predicted to crest the ridgeline in the Hehe drainage.

The origin of the fire is still being investigated. The USFS is requesting any information, tips, photos, or videos of the area from July 22 when the fire started. Anyone with information is asked to email the U.S. Forest Service’s TIP LINE; people with info can also email the Lane County Sheriff’s office or the Willamette National Forest Supervisor’s Office. The Middle Fork office in Westfir is at 541-782-2283.

By Wednesday afternoon the fire was still at zero containment, with over 200 firefighters assigned. Containment’s estimated for the first week of October.