Smoke continues to fill the air around Central Oregon as fire crews battle multiple blazes across the state. For those not on the frontlines, much of how the public tracks the progress firefighters make is through reported containment levels.
If a wildfire is 50% contained, what does that mean?
“It’s starting to be handled, I don’t know,” Portland Resident Nico Rush suggesteds. “But it makes me feel better than zero percent.”
What about 100%?
“That’s a whole different thing because it’s contained 100%, but it’s not out,” said Nancy Parenteau, who hiked Pilot Butte Thursday despite the smoke.
The U.S Forest Service’s Kassidy Kern says full containment does not mean the end of a wildfire.
“Even if we put a line around the entirety of the Bedrock Fire right now, we would still be eating some smoke for four months,” she said.
Containment is based on the confidence of fire crews on their established lines, clear-cut areas that create a barrier around the perimeter of the fire.
“One of the most important things you want to do is try to get preliminary lines,” Kern said. “You want to put in a line around your fire, if you can get that. Then you can start to secure it and that’s when people are going to start to see the containment number go up.”
A designated situation unit leader then collects the data and determines how much of the establish line they are confident will hold the blaze.
“There’s more to containment than just building a fire line,” Oregon Department of Forestry’s Marcus Kauffman said. “He or she consults with our operations people who are out there on the ground, on the fire and then they essentially make a judgment call.”
There is no set standard for how secure a line must be to consider a fire against it contained. Different unit leaders could look at the same fire, the same lines and come up with different containment values.
But Kauffman urged fire followers to trust the numbers.
“Firefighting is kind of a mix of that art and science, or we’re out there on the ground, but we have some very sophisticated fire behavior models,” he said. “There’s a lot of professional experience and information behind these numbers.”