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Dry conditions, labor shortage pose challenge for Oregon wildfire season

Crews head out to engage the Bootleg Fire.
Crews head out to engage the Bootleg Fire.

Spring moisture has delayed the start of wildfire season in Oregon, but drought and a shortage of personnel could strain fire response this summer.

Oregon could be in store for a difficult wildfire season because of a multi-year drought and a national labor shortage squeezing available fire personnel.

Gov. Kate Brown and state leaders voiced concerns at a press conference Monday.

“We’re fighting fires of a new age, made more intense by impacts of climate change,” Brown said. “It is a different wildfire environment with new challenges that stretch our firefighters and resources.”

The biggest challenge facing Oregon this year, leaders say, is drought.

Brown has already declared drought emergencies in 15 Oregon counties this year, the most of her tenure for this time of year. About half the state is in extreme drought or worse, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Late-season rain and snow have helped stave off the start of wildfire season in some parts of the state, but it may have also contributed to the growth of “fine fuels” like invasive grasses that could drive large fires, especially east of the Cascades.

Fire risk is highest in Central Oregon to start the season, but will likely spread to Eastern and Southern Oregon as spring precipitation tapers off.

“That transition period from non-fire season into fire season will likely come very quickly this year,” said Mike Shaw, fire chief for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “And the fires that we do encounter will be difficult to suppress.”

Adding to the challenge this year is a labor shortage that’s affecting firefighting capacity nationwide.

Federal agencies and private contractors have struggled to recruit and retain wildland fire personnel in recent years, a downturn that was exacerbated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“I’ve never seen recruitment drop this low before,” said Scott Polhamus, public information officer for the Organization of Fire Contractors and Affiliates. The Eugene-based organization trains firefighters and certifies trainers.

“It means less firefighters, simply put,” Polhamus said. “It means less crews are going to be available on the hill.”

Wildland firefighting is a competitive industry in which government agencies and private contractors compete for workers.

A group of 28 federal lawmakers, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, called the labor shortage an “urgent threat to natural resources, public safety and taxpayer dollars.”

Shaw with ODF said Oregon is “in better shape” than federal and private firefighting outfits, but ”the struggles that those folks have will have an impact on us,” especially later in summer when there’s more competition for firefighting resources.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Bradley W. Parks