Newly sworn in U.S. Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke visited Oregon on Saturday as firefighters battle the top two wildfires in the country...the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and the Chetco Bar Fire on the Southern Oregon Coast.
Tooke says it's been a long, tough year of firefighting that started last Fall with fires in the Southeastern U.S.
Tooke says there's no weather event on the horizon that will bring rain to douse the fires. For the last 31 days, the Forest Service has been at Planning Level 5 which is the top of their list for firefighting. On an average year they're at that level for 17 days.
There are 80 large wildfires with nearly 8 million acres burned. Tooke says they've been successful in keeping the number of structures lost to around 1,500 which is about half of normal.
Tooke says he's worried about firefighter fatigue, because all of the available fire crews are working.
They're even getting some help from the military with active duty soldiers fighting wildfires.
Tooke says Congress needs the treat the huge wildfires like natural disasters and pay for them out of a special allocation. Currently, the Forest Service is draining its fire prevention budget paying for wildfire fighting and that leaves less money for thinning and other operations that keep fires from becoming massive.
Tooke spoke at a news conference in Troutdale with several other Oregon and Washington officials.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown says the firefighters on the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge have turned from offense to defense. They are worried about a change in the weather on Monday that could bring east winds. They're working to reinforce fire lines, especially those that protect the community of Corbett.
Brown was asked why the Supertanker isn't being used in Oregon. The 747 aircraft is capable of carrying nearly 20,000 gallons of fire retardant. Brown says it is available, but weather conditions have prevented its use on the Eagle Creek Fire and the Chetco Bar Fire. Smoke and winds prevented its use in the early stages of the Eagle Creek Fire and smoke and fog prevented its use on the Chetco Bar Fire. It's not being used on other Oregon fires, because there are higher priorities in California where the jet is currently contracted.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Greg Walden and Peter Defazio called on Congress to change the way fighting massive wildfires is funded. They have been fighting to have those fires treated like natural disasters.
Wyden says there are indicatons that the Trump Administration is leaning toward approval of funding massive wildfires as natural disasters.
Walden grew up in the Columbia River Gorge and toured the fire damage. He called it tragic. He says it's good to see the fires didn't burn everything and there are still plenty of forested areas along I-84. Walden says time will tell whether trees will be able to recover from the fire. He says as soon as the fire is out it'll be critical to immediately launch restoration efforts. Walden says, "It's especially frustrating to know how it started, or at least how it allegedly started. It makes you angry." Oregon State Police are investigating a teenager who allegedly threw fireworks into the Eagle Creek canyon.
Forestry officials are concerned about whether the damaged trees will be vulnerable to beetles. They'll be watching to see whether an infestation begins. They're also concerned about winter rains causing slides and washing soil down the steep hillsides. As soon as the fire is out they'll start efforts to stabilized especially vulnerable areas.
I-84 remains closed through the Gorge as crews work to remove between 1,500 - 2,000 hazardous trees and check hillsides for loose rocks.