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Firefighting efforts persevere despite blasting heat and grounded aircraft

This week saw several scorching days with triple-digit temps, which challenged suppression efforts against several wildfires near Lowell and Oakridge.

In a populated area near the Bedrock Fire, houses and trailers stood empty following a Level 3 evacuation notice issued Monday. Fire crews cleared brush from buildings and gutters to deprive the fire of fuel should it come through here.

Robert Montgomery, a public information officer for the fire, explained what was going on with a pump and series of hoses at a large creek.

“The pump is powering the sprinklers over here, and they are soaking the area,” he said.

Nearby, Christine Pezzulo, Engine Boss for Portland Fire and Rescue, oversaw the clearing and dousing operations.

Firefighter near truck.
Brian Bull
Christine Pezzulo, engine boss with Portland Fire & Rescue.

“It's going to hopefully keep these homeowners feeling pretty secure about things and we're doing everything we can to get these homes lined out best we can,” she said. “We're feeling pretty solid about things, feeling good.”

Deana Wall is an operations section chief trainee on the Bedrock Fire, which—as of Thursday morning—is 25% contained and just over 27,000 acres. She said the hot and dry conditions caused parts of the fire to spread and burn fuels. But with temperatures easing now, Wall was hopeful.

“The projected winds that they're forecasting as well may be a benefit, and assist us in allowing the fire to -instead of making west runs from east winds -- those are projected to change and be more favorable for our southwest portion of the fire, where we are currently attempting to put in direct lines,” she said.

Besides four straight days of searing heat, fire teams also dealt with heavy smoke this week which interfered with aerial operations.

Paul Belfour is the helibase manager for the Bedrock Fire near Oakridge. He told KLCC on Wednesday that all nine of his helicopters were stuck on the tarmac because of the smoke.

“Right now we’ve got less than a half a mile visibility, so everybody’s pretty well grounded,” he said.

Heather Appelhof, a public information officer for the Bedrock Fire, said an atmospheric event is behind the grounding.

“We've had some inversion, which means the smoke is settling down into the area," she said. "It's making it very thick and visibility has been very poor. So a lot of our aircraft are not able to fly.”

Should conditions improve and the smoke lift, Belfour said operations will resume at the helibase. He said people need to understand safety for air crews is paramount.

“A lot of people see helicopter sitting on the ground. They're wondering, ‘Well, why aren't you guys out? We can we can see the treetops.’ Well, our folks, yeah, they can see the treetops, but when you're dragging a bucket traveling almost 100 miles an hour, it gets very unsafe real quick.”

Smoky haze and forest.
Brian Bull
Heavy smoke from the Bedrock Fire has obscured visibility, making it hard for air crews to do reconnaissance and bucket drops this week.

Belfour said with some choppers dropping 3,000 gallons of water at a time, it could be disastrous if a pilot emptied a bucket on firefighters below.

“The pilots traveling out there at, you know, close to 100 knots," he said. "So once they get on scene, they've got to be able to not only see the distant horizon or mountains, but they've also got to be able to see treetops. Right now with this visibility you wouldn't be able to see firefighters on the ground.”

Salmon success

There is a success story that fire crews are happy to share.

The Salmon Fire is nearly 100% contained, and has been limited to 135 acres following the fast response of fire crews.

Aaron Rowe is an Operations Section Chief currently working the Bedrock Fire. He told KLCC that the Salmon Fire’s proximity to Oakridge put crews on high alert after it was reported on August 6.

“The Salmon Fire was basically an emerging incident that we quickly tried to get the right crews on it at the right time, as quickly as we could,” said Rowe. “That was a big priority for us to kinda squash that thing as soon as we could, and so now it’s basically on patrol status, and looking really good at this time.”

Rowe says within a couple days, initial lines were dug in and reinforced.

However, the Salmon Fire will not likely be called extinguished until this fall. That’s when colder, damper weather will dominate the landscape. With climate change extending wildfire season by making the Pacific Northwest drier and hotter, it’ll be a brief reprieve for fire teams.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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