NEWPORT — With 17 local firefighters back from fighting the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, Calif., fire officials in Newport said providing fire assistance to Oregon’s neighbor to the south is set to be a regular occurrence in the coming years.
“A lot of it is some of the conditions that are down there,” said Newport Fire Chief Rob Murphy of California’s arid environment. “You’re seeing this is the effect of climate change. A just-retired Cal Fire chief said this is the new reality and that this is the new norm.”
This is the second year local firefighters on the Oregon coast responded to fires in California. They helped put out the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., last year.
The Kincade Fire broke out in late October, prompting Cal Fire, the statewide firefighting service in California, to call for help from agencies in neighboring states. Almost every fire department in Lincoln County sent personnel and equipment — the Newport Fire Department sent five firefighters, Central Lincoln Fire & Rescue sent three, the Depoe Bay Rural Fire Protection District sent five, North Lincoln Fire & Rescue sent three and Yachats Rural Fire Protection District sent one. The firefighters from Lincoln County were known collectively as Strike Team #12 and were dispatched on Oct. 27 to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif., the base camp for firefighters assigned to the Kincade Fire.
While on duty, Strike Team #12 was assigned to protect the area surrounding the Safari West Wildlife Sanctuary, home to many species including cheetahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos, Fennec foxes, American flamingos, Masai giraffes, helmeted guinea fowl, striped hyenas, black-and-white Ruffed lemurs and Plains zebras, among dozens of other species from the various regions of the world.
“They had a bunch of animals, particularly from Africa there,” said Tom Jackson, strike team leader for local firefighters.
Strike Team #12 were only 17 of 5,000 firefighters assigned to the Kincade Fire, while 627 fire engines, 97 hand crews, 67 bulldozers, 27 helicopters and four fixed-wing air tankers were used to help contain the fire. More than 77,000 acres burned in that fire, and more than 180,000 people were evacuated from the area. Almost 400 buildings were destroyed and 60 were damaged, Jackson said. Around one million people had no electricity or access to power while the Kincade Fire raged, he added. The local team was finally released from duty on Nov. 2 and came home immediately after.
“This shows the commitment Oregon made to surrounding states, particularly California, in sending resources when they call for it,” Jackson said. “For the second year in a row, we sent the most resources out of all the states that they requested from.”
Cal Fire reimburses firefighting agencies from other states when California requests assistance during major fires. In federally declared disaster zones like the Kincade Fire, Jackson said, the federal government picks up 75 percent of that tab.
“The State of California Office of Emergency Services puts the request to Oregon, and we submit paperwork to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management for reimbursement costs for personnel and apparatuses, and they send that to California Emergency Services, which reimburses Oregon, and we get a check back,” Murphy said on Monday. “It takes about six months to get reimbursed the money.”
The dry, arid conditions in California will make fire conditions down there worse, local fire officials said, and could perhaps work their way up to communities here in Oregon.
“Those of us in the fire realm have accepted that, and some of us have even seen the changes as they work their way up north into Lincoln County,” Murphy said.