- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

ROSEBURG, Ore. (AP) - The Douglas Forest Protective Association has been working through a dangerously dry fire season, but it’s nothing new for an organization that covers 1.6 million acres within the borders of Douglas County.

Its mission is to minimize fire damage and do it cost effectively, reported The News-Review (https://bit.ly/2ckVJp9).

Melvin Thornton, the district manager of the DFPA, is a true lifer. Thornton has grown up in the organization since his father worked there, and he has worked his way all through the ranks to district manager.

Thornton has been with the DFPA 45 years and he’s seen it all, including the worst fire season Douglas County ever had in 1987, when more than 30,000 acres burned and two people died. He also saw the least destructive year in 2012, when only 29 acres burned.

“My dad actually worked for the DFPA when I was born, and I was born at a guard station up Hinkle Creek (east of Sutherlin),” Thornton said.

Thornton has helped them build a reputation of getting to fires quickly and stopping them while they’re small.

Having a helicopter on standby has changed how they attack the fires. Thornton said they can get to the fire quickly and drop water on it, many times, and can have the fire out before the firefighters can get there.

They started using a helicopter in 1971 and 15 years ago, went to a contract for the entire fire season, and it’s been a huge asset.

“We’ve seen smaller fires, and you have less of the large, expensive fires because of that helicopter,” he said.

For the landowners, it saves their land and valuable resources, and countless losses.

Jake Gibbs sits on the DFPA board, and is the director of external affairs for Lone Rock Timber, which has about 60,000 acres under DFPA protection. Gibbs said the organization is very efficient and thrifty in its operation.

“I have not worked with any organization as effective as they are in putting a fire out, and they’re very mindful of the resource value and the environmental value of the resource they’re protecting,” Gibbs said.

Audrey Barnes, the executive assistant with the Douglas Timber Operators, echoed his sentiments.

“Their initial attack and commitment to putting the fires out immediately is so much appreciated, and very important to our timberlands. I can’t say enough good things about the DFPA,” Barnes said.

The association grew out of the Douglas Forest Patrol which was founded in 1911, and they protect both timber and grazing lands. Landowners pay a fee per acre to have their land protected. But they also have a contract with the state to protect those non-association lands, and Bureau of Land Management land.

The landowners pay into a system called the Oregon Forest Land Protection Fund, and once the DFPA reaches a certain cost on a fire, they are eligible to utilize that fund to help pay for those expensive fires.

If they go beyond that, they can get money from the state general fund, and beyond that an insurance policy through Lloyd’s of London.

“Because of the statues that are there, it’s really kind of a seamless organization, so we’re able to provide a complete and coordinated system throughout the state,” Thornton said.

Thornton said they have had great cooperation from all the fire departments in the county. Anytime they are needed, they come.

Thornton is in charge of determining when to declare fire season in the county and put fire restrictions in place. This year it started on June 8.

“It’s a judgment call for sure, it’s kind of a mixture of experience and judgment, watching the curing of the grass, and the numbers to see where the fuels are, and what the forecast calls for,” he said.

The DFPA has fire crews that get deployed to other areas of the state when they are not needed here. In the off-season some of those crews could end up going to other states to fight fires.

Thornton said even though the federal government won’t allow the Youth Program for 16 and 17-year-olds any more, they still hire 80 to 100 young men and women each fire season. About 30 work year round with jobs like tree planting, ODOT snow removal, and clearing brush around homes.

The DFPA has gone high tech in the last few years with forest cameras that can be monitored right from the offices in Roseburg.

Thornton said they started using six of them in 2006, and they have made a huge difference in quickly locating fires.

“We led the charge on that one in the United States and actually in all of North America. I t was a little spooky at first, so we took it slow,” he said.

The cameras came out of necessity because they had lookouts that had to be replaced and the cost had increased so much that they felt that had to do something else. Thornton happened to see a TV station report from a ski resort, where they zoomed in on a squirrel, and thought, why couldn’t they do something like that.

So they did a test with two of them and it was very successful and much cheaper than replacing the lookouts, plus they didn’t have to pay someone to be in the tower.

By 2009, they had pretty much replaced all their lookouts with cameras.

“I would never go back now,” he said.

After the cameras were installed on DFPA land, the Coos-Forest Protective Association and Lane County districts followed, and the Umpqua National Forest added a couple of cameras.

“We monitor 29 cameras out of our office here, from Brookings to Sweet Home,” said Kyle Reed, fire prevention specialist for the DFPA.

They watch over about 10 million acres and Thornton said because of that, they are able to keep their cost down.

The DFPA has guard stations in three locations in the county, in Canyonville, Drain and Rock Creek east of Glide.

“I think the DFPA is a leader in the firefighting organizations at least in the state, and the western U.S., and if we continue to provide that good service we’ll be here,” Thornton said.

In the future, Thornton said, funding will continue to be a concern, because fires are costing more and there are more rules to follow. But he thinks local control is a necessity, so they can more quickly react to the fires and to the local landowners.


Information from: The News-Review, https://www.nrtoday.com

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