▶️ Feast or Famine: Slow fire season tough on crews, a blessing to forests

BY HEATHER ROBERTS
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

Jacob Crumrine is a typical senior at Redmond Proficiency Academy … this past summer, he signed up to work with wild land fire crews, to earn money for college and to support a budding music career.   [have video of his band]

“I expected to work a fair amount of fires, with camp crew, as fire support,” Crumrine said. “We weren’t going to be at the fires. We were going to be several miles away, helping the firefighters with food and camping, and stuff like that. And, I expected to go on at least two or three two-week stints of this.”

He has friends who had done it before and told him it was a sure-thing.

“They were like, you should do it because it’s a good way to make a lot of money.”

Jacob went through orientation then, he waited.

“I’d turned down several music gigs because of it. When you get a call, it’s between five and 24 hours to leave, so it’s not like I can just tell someone I’m going to leave because it’s the day of,” he said. “So, I had to turn down several events like that, just because I expected to be going.”He says he also turned down three potential summer jobs that didn’t pay as well as the fire camp work was supposed to pay.

“This is my senior year, and I haven’t had a job in a year.”

Jacob was never called up, because this summer’s wildfire season was much milder than in recent years. And, for managers of the region’s forestland, that was a blessing.

“The season was great. I mean, considering the last 10 years of just running hard for weeks on end, just being able to have an average fire season where the fires didn’t get out of control, but basically keep the crews busy, so they were happy; but yet never felt overwhelmed,” said Rob Pentzer, acting district forester, Oregon Dept. of Forestry.

Across lands managed by Oregon’s Department of Forestry, the National Forest and Bureau of Land Management, Central Oregon saw about 345 fire starts which is about average for the region. But, those fires burned just over 1,100 acres – much less than normal.

For the ODF, 2019 was the shortest fire season in two decades.

“We were very fortunate and blessed to basically have a lot of precipitation to come with our storms. For the last few years, the storms have been a little more dryer and a little more sporadic. But, this year, basically, the rain allowed us more time to get on them sooner and keep them smaller and a lot easier to put out.”

That means initial attack teams stayed busy but contractors that provide wildland fire crews, like Redmond-based PatRick did not.

“It can be really hard. Most of our employees on a really tough fire season, like this, have other jobs and so they’ll work the other jobs,” said Joel Dice, with PatRick.

PatRick typically trains around 400 employees for a season. They’re sent out in 20-man crews when a major fire breaks out. Dice says last year, those teams stayed busy.

“That’s two opposite ends of the spectrum. You have one fire season where it’s a lot going on, and fires burning everywhere and we’re very engaged, we’re very active,” Dice said. “To a fire season like this year and it is what it is, you know? It’s really feast or famine.”

PatRick crews worked just one fire in Central Oregon, outside Sister, some were also sent to help in Southern Oregon, California and Alaska.

“This isn’t typical. We don’t usually have a season that’s this slow, but we don’t usually have a season that’s as busy as it was in 2018. It’s usually somewhere in the middle,” Dice said.

That’s little consolation for Jacob, who doesn’t think he’ll gamble on a wildfire-related job again.

“It has kind of ruined the experience. I don’t think I would, just because I’d rather get something I know would work, versus something that maybe will do great,” he said.

But, he admits, the benefits of the mild fire season certainly outweigh the disappointment of not making any money.

“It was a great summer. I didn’t have to watch if there was smoke, or anything like that,” he said. “Because, where I live, we’re really close to where the fires usually are, so we didn’t have to worry about that.”

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