SWEET HOME — With more than 100,000 acres already burning in Central Oregon and much drier than normal weather conditions in the mid-valley, it's timely that more than 200 firefighters and instructors are in Sweet Home at the 22nd annual Mid-Willamette Valley Interagency Wildland Fire School.
A mid-valley firefighting team from the Oregon Department of Forestry — including an engine from the Sweet Home Unit — have responded to a fire near Sisters and other fires are near Culver and Maupin, according to unit forester Craig Pettinger.
“That little shot of rain we had last week saved our bacon,” Pettinger said. “We were looking at moisture indices we would normally see in late July. It wasn’t enough for fuels to fully recover, but it definitely helped.”
Sweet Home’s 14-person fire crew has been on the job since last Monday and team members are among 200 from the around the state taking part in classroom and hands-on training.
Fire season was declared throughout western Oregon on June 21. That includes Linn, Benton, Lane, Lincoln, Polk and northwest Douglas counties.
Pettinger said the local forecast includes a chance of spotty rain, which would be welcome, but that may also come with unwanted lightning strikes.
“I think a good indicator of how dry things are is that area farmers have put up a lot of hay already and it isn’t the 4th of July yet,” Pettinger said.
Officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Confederated Tribes of Grand Rond and Bureau of Land Management are hosting the training to prepare new firefighters for fighting fire, both in Oregon's forests and in rural-urban interface areas.
Pettinger is co-incident commander for the school along with Shawn Sheldon, Deputy Fire Staff for the BLM and Willamette National Forest.
They see fire school as an opportunity to train firefighters in both tactical skills and safety.
“Fire School provides crucial education and training in wildland fire to new firefighters and gives career firefighters a chance to refresh their skills and explore leadership opportunities," Sheldon said.
Classes include basic fire behavior, weather, map and compass use, teamwork, safety, use of engines, tools and hose lays, fighting fire in the rural-urban interface and fire investigation. Students will sleep in tents at Sweet Home High School and eat meals together, giving them a taste of life in a real fire camp.
Friday, the course will climax with live-fire training on Cascade Timber Consulting property about five miles east of Sweet Home. The public is advised to watch for traffic and possible smoke in the area.
“Safety is paramount in every aspect of wildland firefighting, and it begins with our training exercises,” explained Pettinger. "Working together in a training setting improves communications and builds effective relationships for the agencies to draw on during fire season."