'We have all the toys for large forest fires'

'We have all the toys for large forest fires'
KATU got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Oregon Department of Forestry's fire cache in Salem, Oregon on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. Photo by Kai Hayashi/KATU.com.

SALEM, Ore. - Wildfire season is just around the corner and that means crews are gearing up for what could be a busy summer.

Forecasters predict this year's wildfire danger will be higher than normal in the Pacific Northwest. That's because precipitation is down and conditions are dry - even with all the rain we got at the end of May. That rain actually helped us out by keeping the wildfire season from making an early appearance.

To get an idea of how crews are preparing for what's to come, we stopped by the state's largest fire department - the Oregon Department of Forestry - for a behind-the-scenes tour of their operation. They're in charge of protecting 16 million acres of forest land in Oregon, which is certainly a big job.

We specifically took a peek at the stockpile of supplies that could soon be sent out to fire camps across the state and talked to the man who keeps track of it all - Fire Cache Manager Jim Liesch. He oversees the Oregon Department of Forestry's warehouses, along with the fleet of mobile fire camp vans, trucks and trailers that function as kitchens, showers, communication hubs and more.

"We have all the toys for large forest fires," Liesch said. "The stuff we use to build a city in less than 24 hours - most of that comes from here. And everything has to be ready."

And it's not just the big stuff - tents, fire hoses and fire-fighting tools - that's housed there. Liesch has to make sure he has anything and everything a fire camp will need to operate, which includes items like lip balm, toilet paper, pencils, paper, forms, folders and office equipment.

"It takes a lot of paperwork to fight a fire," Liesch said.

Photo by Kai Hayashi/KATU.com.

Liesch has to get a head start on wildfire season to make sure everything is ready to roll out at a moment's notice. He and his small crew started kicking it in high gear on May 1. Their goal is to have everything all set by June 15.

It's a tough job that involves some serious logistics and planning. And of course, every wildfire season is different so Liesch has to roll with the punches as the summer progresses.

"There are always challenges," he said. "Usually the challenges are the new things."

Photo by Kai Hayashi/KATU.com.

And Liesch (pictured at right) is just the man for the job. He's been in charge of the fire cache at the Oregon Department of Forestry for over two decades.

"I like problem solving," he said. "In the mechanical world - those types of problems. I just really enjoy that end of it."

"The biggest enjoyment I get is more rare," he added. "That's being able to design and decide what a shower is and what is a kitchen. And that's primarily up to me to figure those things out. There are parameters and outside and inside influences, but I get to take that, kind of stir them up and put them all together."

Sometimes budgetary concerns play a role in what Liesch does. For example, earlier this week the U.S. Forest Service announced they will hire 500 fewer firefighters this year across the board and they will they also have less equipment to work with because of automatic spending cuts imposed by Congress.

Earlier this week, U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell assured folks they will still be able to fight wildfires across the West, in part because of three new air tankers being put into service.

"It is likely that high levels of initial attack success will continue," Tidwell said, noting that with the agency's highly mobile workforce and focus on high-risk areas, they should still be able put out about 98 percent of wildfires on the initial attack.

The Department of Forestry in Salem referred us to their Portland office to find out how this might impact Oregon's firefighting efforts this year. According to Tom Knappenberger with the Portland office, the sequester cuts are small and will be absorbed by the budget they already have in place. He said the one impact it might have is that they will likely hire fewer temporary positions for recreation staffers that help out at trailheads and campgrounds. "It probably won't be evident to the public," he told us.

Fire burns a ridge in northern Los Angeles County. Calif., Monday, June 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

On a final note, you might have heard about the wildfire in southern California (north of Los Angeles) that broke out a week ago, threatening homes and forcing evacuations.

We asked Liesch if any of Oregon's crews or supplies had been sent to help and he said while they do partner with neighboring states, they typically don't go to California because that state's Department of Forestry is quite robust and they usually have a strong handle on their operations.

At last check, the wildfire, dubbed the Powerhouse Fire, was 70 percent contained and firefighters were conducting mop-up operations. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.