New Fire Officer Knows When To Hold 'Em, Knows When To Run

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The Payson Ranger District welcomed a new U.S. Forest Service fire management officer Monday. Robert Ortlund, who has served as the fire management officer in Tonto Basin for the past 11 years, was hired to fill the position Payson's longtime Fire Management Officer Pat Velasco left vacant when he retired in November.


Although Ortlund is new to the job, he's not new to the community, the position or the Payson Ranger District.


He began working for the Forest Service while he was still in college. He worked on a Forest Service helitack crew during the summers to support himself while he attended Northern Arizona University.


"To me, getting dumped off by a helicopter, spending a couple of days fighting a fire and then hiking out is pretty fun," he said.


Later he was hired by the Payson Ranger District, and eventually, he became Velasco's assistant.

But although he's brave enough to jump out of a perfectly good helicopter and stand his ground against a furnace-hot forest fire, Ortlund also knows when to run.


"I was chased off a fire by a bear," he said. In 1985, Ortlund was working with Velasco in Payson as the assistant fire management officer.


"We were over by Christopher Creek working about an acre-fire," he said. "We heard some noise above us. On the hill, running full speed at us, was a bear. We scattered like quail. (The four) of us ending up climbing trees."


From his treetop perch, Ortlund watched as the bear rifled through one of the crew's abandoned packs and began snacking on the rations, which are similar to army rations, that the firefighters carry in the field.


"He probably didn't feel really good after eating that," he said, chuckling at the memory. The rations didn't much appeal to the bear, Ortlund said, and he left and went on about his way.


"I don't know how big he was," he said. "I was too scared to measure him."


Ortlund graduated from NAU in 1975 with a teaching degree. The Forest Service offered him a full-time position just after graduation, and he took it.


"They called me up and offered me a job, and I thought 'I'll try it for a while. If I didn't like it, I would go back to teaching.' It was an unexpected career change because the opportunity was there."


He worked on the Kaibab Forest and spent a short stint in Young before moving to Payson nearly 20 years ago. He transferred to the Tonto National Forest and eventually became Velasco's assistant. Ortlund went on to become the fire management officer in Tonto Basin in 1989, and remained there until transferring to Payson Monday.


As fire management officer, Ortlund oversees the Forest Service's fire prevention, detection and firefighting efforts, its scribed burn program, and he coordinates fire suppression efforts with local fire departments.


"The main issue is where we live," he said. "We have such a growing community and more and more people are coming up from Phoenix and using the forest. Prior to settlement times the forest used to see natural fires burn through the landscape quite often. Tree ring studies show fires burning through every two to five years.


"Now that lots of people live here, there are a lot of demands on the land. It is difficult, but we need to return fire to our ecosystem. It is hard to be out managing the national forest and to use fire to mitigate our fuel problems without directly affecting the citizens in our areas. It is a big challenge."


Ortlund said his first order of business was to curtail prescribed burns until it rains or snows. The forest is Dude-Fire dry, he said, and he remembers that devastating 1990 blaze well.


He was in charge of air attack operations when a lightning strike near the Rim sparked a fire that killed six firefighters, burned more than 24,000 acres of forest and destroyed 63 homes.


Ortlund said he intends to work hard to prevent another fire like that one.


"In the past, we have been pretty successful when we get these really dry years in preventing a lot of fire," he said. "It is so dry this year we could be in a similar year (as the Dude).


"As we move toward summer, the risk is going to get a lot higher. We will be working really hard with the community, local fire departments and the state to try to have a good prevention program in place."

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