Slow Oregon Fire Season Coming To A Close

Sept. 20, 2004
Despite dire predictions, 2004 was one of Oregon's slowest fire seasons in years, coming to a halt in a humiliating dose of liquid sunshine.
OAKRIDGE, Ore. (AP) -- Despite dire predictions, 2004 was one of Oregon's slowest fire seasons in years, coming to a halt in a humiliating dose of liquid sunshine.

Forest fires burned only about 10 percent of the 10-year average and less than one-fifth of last year's acreage. Many crews didn't have much to do, and spent their time clearing roads and doing maintenance on shelters.

``It's disappointing,'' said Jason Dodge, 21, of Oakridge. ``I like the excitement, the action. I do this job for the thrill.''

Saturday was the final day for his 20-person crew at the Middle Fork Ranger District in the Willamette National Forest.

``They're young, they enjoy getting out and doing something physical,'' crew boss Joe Mercado said. ``But I think they prefer a big fire season. They get to make some pretty good money.''

This summer, only a few small, lightning-sparked fires involved local crews.

The largest burned 13,540 acres, a modest-sized fire in other years.

Other fires were kept small by rain, rapid initial attacks and well-placed firefighting aircrafts.

Suppression costs for the big fires were about $16 million this year compared to more than $89 million last year.

Mark Hager, an assistant engine captain stationed on the Middle Fork district, said this was the slowest fire season he's seen in 15 or 20 years.

Pat Houghton, assistant intelligence coordinator in the Portland center that orchestrates wildland firefighting efforts in Oregon and Washington, said the toll was light on timber and wildlife, few structures burned and no casualties were reported.

``Nobody got hurt, nobody got killed _ that's always a great season,'' Houghton said.

It was a mixed blessing for some firefighters. Many are students and the extra cash from a busy fire season can make or break a year.

On a fire, a crew member can make $300 for a 16-hour day in hot, dangerous conditions.

Ashley Coey, 18, one of two women on the crew, had hoped to earn more as she heads to Eastern Oregon University in La Grande to study nursing.

``The rain sort of interfered with that,'' said Coey, also of Oakridge.

This year her crew was called up for fires near Warm Springs and in California and Nevada.

That was more action than many private contract crews saw this year.

Eugene-based Skookum Reforestation Inc. had five idle crews waiting for calls that never came, owner Scott Coleman said.

``We're hemorrhaging,'' Coleman said. ``It was a disaster. They hardly got out at all.''

There are 269 such crews in Oregon and competition is fierce even in busy years.

A few crews worked in Washington, which had a normal fire season.

Oregon had prepared for the worst, adding four heavy air tankers and seven helicopters to strategic locations to bolster initial attacks.

Dodge said he will resume studying computer network operations at Lane Community College this fall.

But next summer he hopes to be back on the Oakridge fire crew.

``I just love being out here,'' he said. ``Being out here in the woods, you can't beat it. It's excellent.''

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