PORTLAND, Ore. — A firefighter died on the first day of what is typically the Pacific Northwest’s busiest month for wildfire, the 28th wilderness fire crew member killed this year in the nation.
John Hammack of Madras, Ore., died at the scene Thursday after being hit by a falling tree while removing fuels in the path of a small wildfire in the remote Mount Washington Wilderness Area in the high Cascades. A second firefighter, Norman Crawford of Sisters, Ore., was hit on the shoulder and taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was treated and released.
Most of this year’s firefighter deaths occurred in Arizona where 19 died battling a blaze. Thursday’s death was the first in Oregon and the second blamed on snags or tree falls. A firefighter in California died from the same cause in June.
“This is a tough loss for Oregon, and with our state experiencing the most severe wildfire conditions in years, all first responders deserve our gratitude, our appreciation, and our support,” Gov. John Kitzhaber said Thursday.
Hammack was among the more than 4,000 firefighters battling active blazes on more than 60 square miles in Oregon. The contract firefighter was employed by R &K Water Services, based in Washington state. Company vice president Sandra Burleson declined comment.
The Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office is investigating, and the U.S. Forest Service will also look into it.
“We’re always committed to improving our safety, and certainly committed to learning something from this,” said Jean Nelson-Dean, Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman.
Though most envision firefighters battling flames, the crews that cut trees play a large role in containing wildfires. They may be cutting trees to establish a fire line, or they may be cutting one because it’s judged to be a hazard to firefighters. It’s leaning on another tree, for example, and could come down.
Falling crews generally go in twos — a faller runs the big saw and the swamper watches out to make sure the tree is leaning correctly as the cut is made.
What’s not known is whether the two men were cutting a tree or whether it was just a random tree that fell. Either is a possibility.
“You hear of firefighters getting hit by falling trees all the time,” said Carol Connolly, spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.
Earlier this week, the National Interagency Fire Center listed the Northwest as its highest priority, giving Oregon and Washington the first shot at crews and equipment as resources become available. That’s typical for this time of year because the Northwest has a later fire season — late July and August — than most of the other 10 regions. The fire season tends to start in the Southeast and shift to the Southwest before migrating north to Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.
Nationally, wildfire season has been relatively mild, with the total number of fires and the area burned running at about 60 percent of the 10-year average. The Pacific Northwest hopes to follow the trend, but the fire center on Thursday released its fire outlook for August and it raised concerns for the region because of the dry land.
“We paint the areas that are predicted to be most active in red, and almost all of Oregon is painted red for August,” said Don Smurthwaite, a fire center spokesman based in Boise. “The fire danger is real in Oregon.”
The wild card is lightning, which started several large wildfires in southwest Oregon last week and ignited the blaze in central Oregon that led to Thursday’s fatality.
Eight wildfires considered to be major were burning in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday. The largest was the Colockum Tarps Fire in Washington state, which was 30 percent contained after burning about 125 square miles of dry grass, sagebrush and light timber and destroying several homes and outbuildings.
In Oregon, most attention has gone to the Douglas Complex wildfires in the southwest part of the state. They have combined to scorch about 45 square miles of forestland. No houses have burned, but nearly 500 were threatened. People in more than 100 homes have been advised to evacuate.