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Loggers fighting fires: why the battle doesn't stop at their property line

South Obenchain Fire Burn Scar on the private timberlands of Lone Rock near Butte Falls. Foresters say as soon as they saw the plume from the fire they were ready to go out an help dig dozer lines. (Mike Bracken)
South Obenchain Fire Burn Scar on the private timberlands of Lone Rock near Butte Falls. Foresters say as soon as they saw the plume from the fire they were ready to go out an help dig dozer lines. (Mike Bracken)
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Residents of Jackson County's urban areas remember exactly where they were the morning of September 8, 2020. As neighborhood after neighborhood from North Ashland to South Medford evacuated leaving homes to the mercy of the Almeda flames, few in the lower parts of the valley had time to realize that just over 30 miles up the hill another fire was tearing through thousands of miles of forest lands at an outstanding rate of speed.

"Almeda happened first and then Obenchain came and within 15 minutes of them (Oregon Department of Forestry-ODF) knowing about it, it was 1000 acres," said Mike Backen, firefighter and forester with local timber producer, Lone Rock Resources. "It became clear right away in the afternoon of that first day that that fire was going to be problematic."

"Problematic," in this case meant a loss of about 3200 acres of Lone Rock's timberland as well as thousands of acres of ODF-managed forest lands, private properties, and homes in the area.

"The stuff we just drove through here are plantations that I managed the planning of...I managed these stands and to see them burn after you put a lot of time and energy and work into them it's kind of heartbreaking," Backen said during an interview after a tour of the company's burn-scarred lands.

He said seeing the fruits of his hard labor and his livelihood burn to ashes was just part of that pain. The other part was knowing that just miles down the road were rural farmlands, homes, and the livelihoods of the business' neighbors.

The South Obenchain fire, which broke out Sept 8 at around 2 pm burned on a total of 32,671 acres. It was not considered fully extinguished until October 3rd. During the first week, it took out a total of 89 structures.

Backen however will tell you that "it could have been worse."

"I think we are lucky that there wasn't more human life lost and more houses burned actually," he said. "It was a situation where the way the fire was burning in the wind, you were not going to stop it, it was going to go where the wind blew it."

Long before the wind blew it from Obenchain Rd--where it first started--up steep hills into the timber company's private lands, Backen and two other crew members were out on the front lines of the fire helping ODF crews dig dozer lines.

"At the time that we realized that there was a significant risk to our property, we came out and scouted this to see what could be done and then we integrated ourselves within the Department of Forestry's incident command system," he said.

This is something Backen and a number of his co-workers are trained to do.

"The relationship between our forest landowners and operators--which are, you know, simply put, loggers, road builders and forest contractors--is very unique to Oregon nationwide," explained Kyle Williams, Director of Forest Protection for the Oregon Forest and Industries Council. "We've got private industry and the state and federal agencies who are paid to fight fire regularly working shoulder to shoulder on the line."

Williams said this unique characteristic of forest management in Oregon has been around for over a century.

"It's been that way since basically just after the last turn of the century so early 1900's when the state recognized that there was value in protecting its forest land," He said. "Private landowners stepped up to the plate to organize themselves to be able to do that and, as the system matured, partnered with the state to execute the services and put wildfire out on state and private land."

Natalie Weber, a spokeswoman for ODF said those partnerships become critical in events like the labor day fires where resources were stretched thin.

"We have a lot of different local agencies and companies that we partner with during fire season and really throughout the year," she said. "They are contracted resources that come in when we need that extra capacity and what that allows us to do is to be aggressive about the way that we fight fire."

Between Sept 7 and 8, the state of Oregon saw a total of 11 wildfires.

"At that time when the labor day fires were happening here in the Rogue Valley, the rest of the state was also experiencing very big very out-of-control fires," Weber said. "Resources were very tight all across the board and really across the country at that point because you had fires going on in Washington, California and Oregon."

That fire event alone, between South Obenchain and Archie Creek (in Douglas County), took out a total of 8000 acres of Lone Rock's timberlands. Because timberland is not insurable that signifies millions of dollars in lost revenue for the company.

This is why Williams and Backen say events like the labor day fires that burned thousands of forestland acres are rare.

"The 10 years prior to this last summer what we would see is about an equal number of fire starts on ODF protected lands (state and private) and federal lands yet the reality of that is that only 7% of the acres burned state-wide were happening on those ODF protected lands," Williams said. "That is a really plain indicator that our system of partnership between the private industry and the state, and our rapid initial attack, and our infrastructure, and the extra resources that the landowners can bring to bear all works and it works exceptionally well!"

Williams said 2020, of course, was an exception to that, but like Baken, he says it could have been a lot worse. He credits at least part of the prevention of loss to foresters trained to fight fires.

"There was so much fire on the landscape all at once," he said. "The government crews, ODF and the federal agencies were tapped out almost immediately, and then here came the private landowners and our loggers and our roadbuilders and everybody else and we put over 650 people and over 350 pieces of equipment out on the fire line within the first two days."

He says sometimes those helping out have contracts with ODF but often they do it because they are protecting their homes and livelihoods.

"It's hit and miss, some folks will get paid for the weeks that they are officially signed up on a fire," Williams said. "Many more, show up, do the work for a few days and then go back to their logging job."

Weber said contracts with private firefighters are established prior to the start of fire season. She did not have an itemized cost breakdown of private workers paid to fight the fire but said the total cost of the South Obencain fire alone to the department was $20,700,000.

She said one thing she can confirm is, when a fire is near private timberland, the property's crews are never far behind.

"A lot of the time when we have a fire that is on or near timber harvested area they will just be there," Weber said. "They will be there already or they will come out to help because they have the equipment and they have the experience."

Williams said it's a service that he feels often goes unrecognized.

"It's an untold story about the investment and just the benefit I think," he said. "Our folks will never go ask for recognition."

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