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Firefighters Ready for Lightning Ahead

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BUTTE FALLS, Ore. – A group of Grayback Forestry firefighters carves through a section of woods near Butte Falls. The crew of 14, swinging hand tools and wielding chainsaws, is cutting a fireline for prescribed burning.

It’s likely the last chance they’ll get to do fuel reduction work before the real action starts.

“The window is getting close to making that transition from doing this to full on fighting fires,” said Michael Brown, an 8-year veteran with Grayback Forestry.

Meanwhile, at the Department of Forestry headquarters in Central Point, two helicopters sit idle. One of which, a hulking Huey Type II, just made it to the helipad on Sunday.

Both of the helicopters are ready to take off in five minutes flat.

The several days of lightning strikes looming ahead represent the first major weather event of the fire season for Southwest Oregon, a region that so far hasn’t seen a single lightning-caused fire.

The potential storms have ODF employees inside the dispatch center watching lookout cams and radar readings like hawks.

“The way the weather’s setting up this afternoon it looks like something is going to hit here, but we’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out,” said Brian Ballou, a Fire Prevention Specialist with the agency.

The fact that they have the luxury of waiting is good news.

The department’s 100 or so firefighters have mopped up 99 human caused fires so far this year, way above average.

But 96% of those have been under an acre, leaving a crew that o-d-f spokespeople say is still fresh and primed to go.

“It’s just like a football team and you’re minutes before the kickoff,” said Ballou. “They’re keyed up.”

So far fire danger remains high, not extreme, despite the dry fuels and hot temperatures. And, according to ODF, the biggest reason is because crews are readily available to fight fires.

But Ballou says the fire danger level could rise as soon as conditions worsen or if a major fire breaks out in the area.