Wildland firefighters train to become investigators
ROSEBURG, Ore. -- Fighting wildfires in Oregon comes with a high risk and a high cost.
The State of Oregon spends millions of dollars on wildfire suppression every year. That is why the Oregon Department of Forestry trains new wildland fire investigators every year.
On Thursday, trainees from all over the state gathered for a week-long training in Roseburg.
Jessica Duarte with the Douglas Forest Protective Association started fighting wildfires when she was 16. Twelve years later, that summer job has turned into her career.
"Once it kind of gets in your blood, you enjoy it," Duarte said. "It's a rewarding job."
After a week in the classroom, Duarte and other trainees practiced canvassing the practice burn site, searching for clues like burn patterns and physical evidence. The clues can indicate the fire's intensity and direction of travel.
"As the fire burns through the grass stems, it will tend to cause them to fall over in one direction," said Jeff Bonebrake, a fire investigator and instructor with the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The trainees are also trying to determine what or who started the blaze.
"When they find a fire that someone is willful malicious or negligent in the cause or spread of that fire, the responsible party is responsible for all fire suppression costs," said Kyle Reed with the Douglas Protective Association.
That will take some of the heat off of Oregon's expenses. According to a report from the Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office, in 2015 the state spent $94 million on wildfire suppression. Federal agencies reimbursed 61% of the amount, or $57.7 million. $24 million came from Oregon's general fund.
"It's a big hit to the state of Oregon's general fund," Reed said. "So it's really important that we're able to collect those costs to reimburse the state."
"It is a challenge," Bonebrake said. "And I think that's part of the draw"
The fire fighters also practiced interviewing witnesses and talking to neighbors. Investigating a fire is a long process, but Bonebrake said it's one that usually ends in success.