Forestry department 'militia' steps up to fight fires
SALEM — Over the course of 38 years at Oregon's Forestry Department, Roger Welty has watched the department go from spotting fires from atop lookout towers to detecting fire with drones.
These days, Welty, a former forester, can be found manning the front desk at the department's Salem headquarters and doing "other duties as assigned."
He's used to the variety.
Although most of his work as a forester in the Astoria district concerned the ins and outs of forest management, Welty also responded to wildfires come summer, when dry conditions and high temperatures can set Oregon's forests ablaze.
That dual role continued as Welty's jobs at the department changed, and until 2015, when he retired from going out in the field during fire season.
The department uses what it calls a "militia model" that in part relies on employees with so-called "desk jobs" to pitch in during fire season.
In earlier years, Welty says, he worked on the fire line and led a firefighting task force.
He eventually was invited to join one of the agency's incident management teams, where he spent 18 years.
"As the hills get steeper, as the years go by, I looked into the finance section," Welty said with a chuckle at his desk on Monday.
Two other ODF employees said in interviews that the militia structure has allowed them to make use of existing and new skills and has informed their understanding of a significant part of the agency's work.
And, administrators claim, the militia model means less expense for the department and more flexibility in the face of unpredictable fire seasons.
However, last year, a state audit found that the demands of fire placed a burden on agency employees and that ODF could improve workforce planning and business processes to mitigate those pressures.
"With three consecutive seasons of severe fire activity since 2013, ODF employees have dedicated significantly more time to fire suppression operations," auditors wrote. "As a result, work in other ODF programs has been delayed and employees are feeling the strain of working long hours and being away from their regular jobs and homes for extended periods of time."
While 2016 was fairly tame, prior fire seasons have been tough.
This year, fires are raging along the Columbia River Gorge, on the Santiam Pass and on the Southern Oregon coast, at times choking Oregon's major cities with smoke and calling national public attention to the region.
The department has three incident management teams, scalable groups of employees called in to respond to serious fires that local firefighters aren't able to tackle solo, according to the 2016 audit. A "full-scale deployment" means 32 management staff and about 90 support staff.
The incident management team can be supplemented by other districts, landowners and contract crews.
Incident management team staff are drawn from throughout the department, which has four divisions: fire protection, state forests, private forests and administrative services.
The militia structure means that, for example, an accountant who typically crunches numbers during Salem's wet winters could be asked during fire season to help the agency keep track of expenses associated with a particular fire, which, knowing no jurisdiction, may span federal, state and private land.
To prep for the summer, Brendon Fisher, ODF's statewide safety manager, helps the agency's seasonal firefighters with their annual health screenings, and educates them about the perils that come with the gig, from heat-related illness to bug bites.
But he's also been called upon to face those risks himself.
For Fisher, a former elementary school teacher, working as a firefighter was initially a summer job while he was a student at Western Oregon University. But he has grown to love seeing new parts of the state and to embrace the camaraderie of working on a fire crew.
"The communal aspect of being on a fire crew is hard to mimic anywhere else," Fisher said.
Ryan Gordon, another forestry employee, said he likes the "different perspective" that going out to work on a fire offers.
"I'm at the bottom of the ladder," Gordon said. "I'm taking direction and learning from people who are much younger than I am, but have far more fire experience and more training than I do, and that's a really unique and interesting system."
Most of the year, Gordon coordinates the state's efforts to offer technical assistance to private, non-industrial family forestland owners.
He has a doctorate in forest social science from Oregon State University, where he studied fire from a distance for years before experiencing the real thing this summer on an engine crew in Southern Oregon.
He attended fire school in Bly — in Klamath County — in June.
Gordon's work at Oregon State involved studying the "social acceptability" of different forest management practices and public trust in government agencies to put them into action.
He worked mostly with federal agencies to help them communicate with locals about fire and fuels management, then did a stint in the nonprofit sector, prior to joining ODF.
Speaking over the phone Friday morning, he was hoping "any hour right now" for a resource order to get sent out as a public information officer trainee.
The prospect of working on more fires excites him, both personally and professionally, he says.
"I think personally, just having worked around fire for quite a while, but never being directly involved, I was really interested in that... Opportunities to do that passed me by," Gordon said. "But professionally, I just felt and still feel like it was really important base knowledge to have and learn in terms of being able to relate to that part of our department. It's a lot of what we do and it's a lot of what our staff focuses on in the field."
Gordon acknowledged that the model isn't free of challenges, though.
"Generally, people are understanding when you say, 'We're focused on fire right now,'" Gordon said, "but on the other hand, there are grant deadlines and other things that don't stop just because we're dealing with fire on the landscape."