To the untrained eye, the tan, dry grass covering much of Reservoir Hill in Roseburg looks pretty normal at this time of year.
It looks a lot different, however, to the people from three local firefighting agencies who were training during the second day of a three-day training session Wednesday.
“See all this dry grass?” said Randy Babbitt, the administrative battalion chief for the Roseburg Fire Department. “It all looks really dead and dry, but it has a lot of green components to it. Green fuels have moisture in them, and any moisture that fuels the fire will suppress the fire.”
Babbitt, who headed up the training, said the late-spring rain that came to the Umpqua Valley in late May and early June likely gave the local firefighting agencies — the Roseburg Fire Department, the Douglas Forest Protective Association and Douglas County Fire District No. 2 — more time to prepare for potential wildfires that, during the past decade, have burned thousands of acres annually.
That’s why this week’s controlled burns, or “fuels mitigation” as Babbitt termed it, are important for the three agencies. Although the wetter-than-normal conditions prompted extra effort in igniting the hillside blazes, firefighters were still given conditions as close to the real thing as possible.
Included in that training was the terrain many of the firefighters had to overcome. Reservoir Hill rises close to 500 feet at steep angles from the base where Deer Creek Park lies, and several firefighter trainees made that ascension from bottom to near the top on Wednesday.
Firefighting agencies saw similar conditions this past year near Canyonville during Douglas County’s biggest wildfire of 2019, the Milepost 97 Fire. Firefighters on the front lines of the blaze, which started in late July and was fully contained in early August, had to work around steep and rugged terrain daily.
In spite of the wet weather that lasted through this past week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration still predicts a hotter and drier summer throughout most of Oregon than in years past. Rainfall totals for the water year — which begins at the beginning of October — are more than 12 inches below average in spite of being near average for the month of June.
Babbitt said fire crews will continue training on Reservoir Hill throughout the day Friday and will continue to use controlled burns along the hillside. The effort will also serve a second purpose, creating a safety net for when fireworks are launched off the top of the hill for the city’s Fourth of July fireworks display, ensuring no stray sparks create an emergency.
“We’re getting rid of fuels that could possibly become an issue for us on the Fourth of July,” Babbitt said.