News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Protecting forest lands in Sisters Country

You can’t live in Sisters and not recognize the ubiquitous pale-green fire trucks used by the Forest Service. A test of how long you’ve lived in Sisters Country would be your ability to differentiate BLM (Bureau of Land Management) fire trucks, the chartreuse-colored rigs. Further upping your identification skills would include knowing to whom the white fire trucks belong.

The answer: Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF). Of course red-fire trucks generally are associated with municipal firefighting. When the fires around Sisters Country or nearby woods get hot enough, it’s possible that all four colors will be on the scene.

There is no hierarchy when it comes to dealing with a life-threatening fire. Whichever agency is closest with the best equipment is likely to be first on scene.

“It’s a unified goal and a unified effort,” said Jeremy Hall, forest officer with ODF’s Sisters Sub-Unit.

If you didn’t know that there was a Sisters Sub-Unit, you’d be in the majority. The station is hard to see through the trees as you whiz past them on Highway 126, 3.3 miles east of town. And if you don’t know ODF’s mission or role, well, you’re in the company of most Oregonians.

“Basically we’re firefighters on state and private lands in the forest not covered by federal or municipal agencies,” Hall told The Nugget when we met for an interview.

Hall was accompanied by Ross Huffman, stewardship forester and Christie Shaw, public information officer.

The Central Oregon District, of which Sisters is a unit, is based in Prineville. The Sisters unit covers a vast territory, over 200,000 acres with more than 20,000 residents in thousands of structures. In the height of fire season they respond to 30-40 fires a day.

Many of the property owners they protect are unfamiliar with the risk of living in the woods. A good number came from large cities or towns hoping to make a simpler life closer to nature. Some are hobby tree farmers, or desire to be but are not wise to the species or health of the trees they acquire with their dream purchase.

Throughout Sisters Country the dominant trees are ponderosa pine or western juniper. The former have low timber value as compared to other conifers, like Douglas fir, and are prone to disease. Junipers are more or less invasive, and consume enormous amounts of water.

Huffman’s job is largely educational, helping landowners and tree farmers interpret the highly complex 1971 Oregon Forest Practices Act, the first-of-its-kind legislation governing the practice of forestry on all Oregon property — public and private. His territory stretches west of Highway 97 from Warm Springs to the Klamath County line.

While putting out fires is its highest priority, ODF’s mission is much broader: protecting, managing, and promoting stewardship of Oregon’s forests to enhance environmental, economic, and community sustainability.

The ODF is engaged in maintaining resilient forested ecosystems and watersheds with functional aquatic and terrestrial habitat. Oregonians have come to expect broad-based protections for our woodland and wildlife.

“It’s not all about fire resiliency in the WUI (wildland urban interface),” Huffman said. “We help landowners manage their trees for overall health and yield.”

Generally speaking, ODF has a low profile and seldom makes news. The exception was last summer. In a surprise move the agency withdrew its controversial wildfire risk map after receiving criticism from the public. The map was part of the implementation of SB762.

In July of 2021 ODF released the new map, created with Oregon State University, which outlined wildfire risk statewide, in the first step toward requiring new fire-resistant codes in areas of high or extreme risk.

Following a sizable amount of pushback, some quite heated, the agency said it’s going to “remove the current iteration of the wildfire risk map.”

The Sisters Sub-Unit has a small permanent work force of three to five employees. In the summer that grows to as many as 18 tasked with firefighting. They arrive at the fire in white trucks with a green emblem.

In the dirty, hard, and dangerous work of fighting fires on the ground, ODF is assisted with an array of technology, including its own Partenavia P-68 Observer aircraft housed in Redmond. Its primary use is for nighttime fire detection work. It is equipped with a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera system that is paired with an augmented reality mapping system.

In fire season, the Partenavia will fly at night to detect wildfires started by lightning. During their time in the air, the observer, or camera operator, will look for hot spots using the infrared system on the belly of the plane.

It is not unusual on some nights to have hundreds of lightning strikes in Sisters Country. Hall, himself an engine captain and EMT, is highly dependent on meteorology to aid him and his team in planning and managing resources.

If you live outside the boundaries of the Cloverdale or Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire Districts, you’re apt to know ODF, founded in 1911, and appreciate its expertise.


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