Banks Fire District Engine 16 heads toward the Powerline Fire. Photo: Chas Hundley
Oregon’s wildland firefighters became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, March 29 in Washington County, and that includes many private crews that work in the logging industry in the region’s forests, and landowners in forested areas that aid firefighting efforts.
“Landowners and operators that participate in fire protection are a critical part of Oregon’s complete and coordinated system and qualify as wildland firefighters,” Mike Cafferata, the Forest Grove District Forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry said in an email.
In a phone call with this newspaper, Cafferata noted that during wildfires, such as the September 2020 wildfires, fire crews often operate in fire camps where social distancing can be difficult.
“If we have a camp of 300 people, we want to make sure everyone is safe,” he said.
A camp used by inmate fire crews from South Fork Forest Camp. Photo courtesy ODF
During remarks on February 26, Oregon Governor Kate Brown provided context for her decision to include wildland firefighters earlier in the vaccine availability schedule than other groups such as frontline workers.
“Another decision that I made, frankly, was including wildland firefighters. They are already starting to prepare for next year’s fire season,” Brown said, noting her optimism for a milder fire season than 2020’s disaster.
“They still have to train, and they are instrumental to firefighting efforts in states around the entire country, so we need them to be vaccinated and protected so they can protect us this year,” Brown said.
While the public might hear the word “firefighter” and picture a figure clad in turnout gear building a fire break amidst a roaring wildfire, the reality is that there are many people aiding during a wildfire. Staff and volunteers help cook, clean, set up and tear down equipment, tents, and more; during Washington County’s Powerline Fire near Hagg Lake, park staff directed traffic and firefighting apparatus, and more.
Private logging crews also aid during wildfires, lending crews and equipment to fight small and large blazes across the state. In 2020, the Oregon Department of Forestry thanked a number of private and public crews, including TJ Forestry, Scott Land & Timber, Stimson Lumber Company, John Ragsdale Logging, Hampton Lumber, Weyerhaeuser Company (Mount St. Helens Hand Crew), Bighorn Logging, Bernards Contracting, Bridger Aerospace, LLC (scooper planes), Forest Grove District Staff, Oregon Department of Forestry, Tillamook Forest Center Staff, Oregon Department of Forestry staff, and more.
All of them are eligible as of Monday for the vaccine, under what Cafferata calls a “broad definition” of wildland firefighters, including “contractors and forest landowners who respond when called to fight wildfires.”
“It’s anybody that helps when we need firefighters,” Caferatta said.
“We are once again preparing for a wildfire season with Covid. Thanks for your help and support in this strange time,” he wrote in an email to forestland owners and operators in early March.
For more information on scheduling a vaccine, visit covidvaccine.oregon.gov or dial 211.