South Fork Forest Camp entrance in November 2017. Photo: Chas Hundley

At least 124 inmates from the South Fork Forest Camp, a joint Oregon Department of Corrections and Department of Forestry facility, have been deployed to fight fires this month, according to a spokesperson for the DOC. 

The men at this facility have been deploying to fight wildfires, a tradition and task that has continued for almost 70 years since the facility was established in the Tillamook Forest in 1951. 

According to Vanessa A. Vanderzee, a spokesperson for the DOC, crews from SFFC have been deployed to at least six fires in September, including the the Green Ridge Fire, Sweet Creek MP2 Fire, Yew Creek Fire, Pike Road Fire, the Echo Mountain Complex Fire, and the Powerline Fire. Some of these fires began before this past week’s conflagration throughout the western portion of Oregon. 

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According to Vanderzee, there are about 200 inmates — called “Adults in Custody” by DOC officials — housed at South Fork Forest Camp; as of Sunday, September 13, 44 remained at the 2,435-acre Echo Mountain Complex Fire near Lincoln City, while the rest had returned to the minimum-security facility located on the South Fork of the Wilson River. 

According to Vanderzee, those fighting the fires either return each night to South Fork if their assignment is “in-district,” or close enough to the facility, but if they are further afield, they set up at a mobile fire camp to stay overnight. 

With unhealthy levels of smoke blanketing much of Oregon, the prisoners have been issued bandannas and face coverings whether they are fighting a fire or at the South Fork Forest Camp, said Vanderzee. Those fighting wildfires are also issued standard safety gear. 

“Avoidance measures are used during times of heavy smoke exposure, as moving to more breathable air is the best tactic to avoid smoke exposure,” said Vanderzee, who noted that there have been no reports of medical issues related to smoke or COVID-19 at South Fork. 

According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, South Fork Forest Camp, established in 1951 as a joint venture between the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon Department of Corrections, houses up to 204 incarcerated adults and has a staff of 24. Those who reside there must apply for the program, which sees inmates perform a variety of tasks, usually related to forestry. 

Crews from South Fork are often sent to assist at wildfires in the Tillamook State Forest and elsewhere in Oregon, and supply labor in replanting efforts, sign building (the sign at the entrance to the Forest Grove Oregon Department of Forestry offices was built by South Fork crews), metal fabrication and tool and equipment repair. The facility is largely self-sustaining in many ways, with a gas station, religious facilities, a small fish hatchery, and auto repair shop. 

Crews also work on campgrounds, trails and trailheads and day use areas throughout the NW Oregon area.