People may have seen smoke coming from Reservoir Hill in Roseburg on Monday, and they might Wednesday and Friday too.

But they shouldn’t be alarmed, as multiple agencies are conducting wildland fire fighting trainings on the hill this week.

Wildland fire potential in Douglas County is expected to be above normal this summer, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and the training will help firefighters practice skills such as fire flanking, fuel elimination and interagency communication, according to Administrative Battalion Chief Randy Babbitt of the Roseburg Fire Department.

“The goal is to get as close to a real-world situation as possible,” Babbitt said.

The 18-person crew included firefighters from the Roseburg Fire Department, Douglas Forest Protective Association, Douglas County Fire District No. 2 and Winston-Dillard Fire District No. 5.

Babbitt said a month of planning went into organizing the operation. The agencies planned to set fire to two “burn boxes” — each about one-tenth of an acre — each day.

The training also provided fire departments with an opportunity to reduce fuels on city-owned property with high fire potential, Babbitt said. Last year, a fire burned a section of grass and pine trees on Reservoir Hill. While the cause of the fire is unknown, railroad tracks sit at the base of the hill, and trains sometimes start fires if hot pieces of metal fall into dry vegetation near the tracks, he said.

Setting the fire also gave crews practice with burning fuels before a wildland fire reaches them.

“Fire can be a very useful tactic in a wildland setting,” Babbitt said. “It has saved lives, putting fire on the ground in the right place at the right time with the right conditions. It’s fighting fire with fire.”

Babbitt said crews weren’t trying to extinguish the fire within a specific time frame.

“It’s more about meeting tactical objectives in a timely manner,” Babbitt said.

As the fire started to burn through grasses on the hill, crews began establishing flanks on the left and right sides by hosing down unburned vegetation and digging trenches. They also used Northeast Bellview Avenue as a natural break in fuels above the fire.

Babbitt said while variables such as wind will affect a fire’s behavior, fires typically burn uphill in a V-pattern.

“You’ll take the flank of the fire that has the most threat to additional vegetation or to structures,” Babbitt said. “You’re trying to keep the fire from spreading laterally and also get to the head of the fire and pinch it off.”

One of the most important objectives of the training was effectively communicating actions with a DFPA support plane flying over the burn. DFPA flies a plane over the county throughout the summer to spot fires as early as possible. If a pilot identifies a fire, she or he will call it in and continue to provide aerial descriptions while ground crews respond.

Babbitt said firefighters are trying to make the public aware of the hazards drones pose to wildland fire aerial support — a problem that has grown as drones become more popular. A U.S. Forest Service campaign to raise awareness about the issue is called “If You Fly, We Can’t.”

“Our aircraft fly fairly low, at the same level that a lot of drones fly,” Babbitt said. “For our aircraft to be effective, they have to get low, a lot of time they’re a high speeds, sometimes they’re hanging a long line bucket underneath a helicopter. So there’s a lot of potential for a drone to make contact with an aircraft.”

Babbitt thanked the Roseburg Police Department, Community Development Department, and Public Works Department officials for helping to organize the operation, and he reminded homeowners to increase fire defensible space on their properties.

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City Reporter

Max Egener is the city reporter for The News-Review. He has a master's degree from the University of Oregon, and is an avid skier and backpacker.

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