DALLAS — Bigfoot isn’t just the star of Northwest cryptozoology myths; he’s now helping the Oregon State Fire Marshal remind people to prevent fires.
No, he’s not replacing Smokey Bear — who just turned 75 — said Fire Marshal Jim Walker.
“Smokey Bear is an icon, second only, I think, to Santa Claus, but Smokey Bear is in wildland — put out your campfires and do those things,” Walker said.
Walker wanted to focus on educating people about preventing fires — not in the middle of the forest — but in areas closer to cities, what he calls the “urban interface.” His staff picked Bigfoot to spread the message.
“Our campaign was going to have people think, think about fire safety,” Walker said.
This year, people landing at the Portland and Madras airports will see advertisements with Bigfoot warning them to prevent fires. The agency placed billboards throughout the state and made bumper stickers and coasters with the mythical creature fly fishing, riding an ATV and pouring water on a campfire.
It’s proven to be popular. Walker said he can’t keep the T-shirts in stock.
Walker can’t say if Bigfoot’s arrival on the fire prevention scene was the reason, but this year, fire season has been mild.
“As most of you know, this summer was a pretty quiet summer when it comes to wildland and urban interface fires. We kinda needed that. What we’ve seen over about the last three years is what we call an epic fire season. You can only have so many epic fire seasons before it becomes the norm,” Walker said during a presentation to Dallas Rotary Club. “I always tell everybody that last biennium, I had a budget for wildland fires of about $550,000. We spent $31 million. Very few state agencies can get away with spending that much money.”
Walker said The Department of Forestry protects forested areas and the fire marshal is responsible for assuring people and structures remain safe. Often wildland fires threaten both natural resources, farmland and homes.
In 2017 and 2018, wildland fires were responsible for putting 27,000 structures under threat of fire. Walker said 40 of those were destroyed by fire.
In those two years, the state called in 732 fire engines and firefighters to operate them to battle blazes across the state — and out of state when California needed help. Walker said though fire department resources leave the communities they serve, the program of helping others serves a valuable purpose.
“The reason why they do that is because they may need help in the future,” Walker said. “I call it neighbor helping neighbor. When there’s a call, we’ve never had anyone say no.”
In response to a question, Walker said his agency is changing how it responds to fires the start in “unprotected areas” such as last year’s fire in Sherman and Wasco counties that consumed thousands of acres of wheat.
“There’s not an agency that protects it; there’s not a fire department that protects it,” Walker said. “When a fire starts in an unprotected area, who responds?”
He said the landowners have the responsibility to fight the fire and they called the state fire marshal’s office for assistance. Walker said he was hesitant to respond because the office’s expertise is better suited to fighting structure fires, not farmland fires.
Now the agency has the ability to call in planes to help battle fires in those areas, which would have put the fire under control sooner, he said.
“I’m not saying we could have stopped it. It had 50-mph winds blowing on it. It jumped the Deschutes River and was flat-out going,” Walker said. “But we could have mitigated the loss on that. I have no doubt we could have done a better job with it had we had the tools and the resources.”
Walker said he is proud of the state’s response to California’s fire disasters.
“Over the last three years, California’s had some really bad incidents,” Walker said. “Two years ago, I got a call from California, they said, ‘hey, can you help us?’ I said we can see what we can do.”
He asked what was needed. Fire officials in California needed 75 fire engines and 350 personnel.
“Within an hour, I was actually turning fire departments away,” Walker said.
In 2017, firefighters went to Napa Valley and the Thomas Fire. In 2018, Mendocino County, and Camp Fire. He said those who go to assist learn how to better protect their hometown when they return.
“Very, very humbling and very, very sad, but what those folks bring back to Oregon is, they’ve seen bad fire,” Walker said. “You should feel good that when Oregon does have an incident you have the right people that are going to that.”
Did you know?
The mission of the office is to protect citizens and property from fire and hazardous materials.
The state fire marshal’s office opened 102 years ago.
The office was started by the insurance industry because of the amount of heavy losses the insurance companies were taking — partially due to arson. Deputies were hired to inspect facilities and try to determine cause and origin of fires.
The fire marshal’s office has been under the umbrella of many state agencies, and is currently part of the Oregon State Police.
Fifteen deputy fire marshals employed by the agency help departments that don’t have their own. They inspect daycare facilities, hospitals, adult care facilities, correctional institutes, and schools.
In partnership with the American Red Cross, the state fire marshal installed 10,000 smoke alarms in homes.