Wildfire season: Could Eugene face a firestorm like the one that incinerated Santa Rosa?

A team from Erickson fights a wildfire Monday in Santa Rosa, California. [Courtesy photo]

EUGENE, Ore. - Lance Lighty found himself fighting to save Oregon's iconic Multnomah Falls Lodge and homes in northern California over the course of just a few weeks during the intense 2017 fire season.

"We were down there for about two weeks," the Eugene Springfield Fire battalion chief said of the Santa Rosa wildfires that incinerated whole neighborhoods.

"The devastation was amazing," Lighty said. "The houses we saw, the people we spoke to thanked us for being there, who either lost family or you know their whole house."

Could such a tragedy happen here, like in the South Hills of Eugene?

It's not out of the question.

Because wildfires have threatened Eugene homes and businesses before - and likely will again.

A fast-moving wildfire came close to damaging property in Eugene just four years ago.

The fire broke out on a windy day on W. 11th Avenue.

"It made its own path," Lighty said. "It burned to West 11th, and we held it there. So you pick a point - a road or a river or maybe even a ridge - to catch it at."

Firefighters stopped the blaze.

But if a fire ever crossed from wildlands into the city, the fire could spread from house to house in neighborhoods.

How do firefighters prepare to stop this from happening?

If they can't control the fire from the ground, firefighters get help from the air.

Marcus Kauffman with the Oregon Department of Forestry sends out air support when fires spread.

He says a bird's-eye view can be the key to controlling a fire.

"Let's say we're going to put the first drop here but then the pilot sees something and says alright well the next drop we might want to put it on that side," he said.

It's not as easy as it sounds.

"There's often times where the fire is burning hot, and we'll have a smoke layer and we can't really fly the aircraft reconnaisance aircraft up above," Kauffman said.

Aircraft equipped with infrared sensors can still fly above the smoke and hunt for hotspots beneath the smoke to help fire managers coordinate their efforts.

But there are preparations ground crews goes through every day to be ready for the fight.

It's all about finding access ahead of time, said firefighter Dave Clark.

If a fire runs up into the South Hills, Clark said it will be vital to establish entrance points that a smaller truck can reach.

And just as Oregon fire crews responded to California to help last year, Lighty said local fire agencies have protocols in place to bring in extra help when needed.

"Across the county we have a really good mutual aid agreement and automatic aid with other fire departments around us," he said.

"Mutual aid's common here for everything," said Chad Minter with Coburg Fire. "For car accidents to structure fire, wildland fires, you name it. We're very versed in it. We know each other, you know, when Lance calls me I know what he's going to need and I call him and he knows what I'm going to need, too."

That teamwork might be in play again if we have another hot, dry summer.

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