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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow WET SPRING MIGHT FUEL, NOT DAMPEN, WILDFIRES

WET SPRING MIGHT FUEL, NOT DAMPEN, WILDFIRES

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

As the rains were falling in Northeast Oregon, members of the Hot Shots headed for Alaska where a spring wildfire was burning.

Although not officially declared, the fire season has started in the greater Northwest, and officials in the La Grande Ranger District are preparing for whatever the summer may bring.

Northeast Oregon residents may have been lulled into a sort of complacency by the rainfalls of March, April and May, but Jay Rasmussen, a fuels manager for the ranger district, stressed this week that the area is still in a drought.

Rasmussen monitors the fire season with weekly weather briefings, forecasts that look at weather changes during the upcoming weeks, and reports from other places.

Although the snowpack was near normal this winter for higher elevations in the Wallowa and Blue mountains, some of the foothills around the Grande Ronde Basin remained nearly bare during the winter. The spring rains, while welcome, encouraged grasses to grow and flourish.

A national risk map, produced by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, shows Northeast Oregon with a far lower than average snowpack regionwide.

"We are considered a high-drought area," Rasmussen said.

As the days turn sunny and the temperature rises, the grasses nourished by the rains will dry, increasing the fire fuels in the forest. If the area gets no more rain before summer, the abundant dry grasses will add to fire risk.

"Bob Tobin of the National Weather Service says that June rains have a big impact on the fire season," Rasmussen said. "If we see the same weather patterns as we did in April and May, it could delay the start of fire season."

The National Weather Service predicts warm, dry days through the middle of next week. Rainfall during June, though, won't reduce the danger of fire to zero.

Rasmussen's theory is to always be prepared for a severe fire season.

"It's surprising how dry is already is," Rasmussen said. "You go out in the forest and under the canopy it's already starting the crackle. It doesn't seem that you have to dig very deep to reach dry soil."

The season so far has been "docile," Rasmussen said. The Southwest United States usually receives rain during mid to late summer, he said, and the worst fires there often start during the warm dry springs. By June 1 this year, no major fires were burning in the Southwest.

"Southern California and the Southwest are heating up again," he said. "By this time last year, we were already fighting fires there. They're at a point where they have about five or six weeks before the monsoons start."

After last year's national expenditures for firefighting, fire managers are taking measures to economize this year, Rasmussen said.

"All agencies are paying attention to cost containment," he said. "We'll look closely at how we spend our money. We'll still have to have our equipment, but where we can, we

will strive to be efficient and effective."

The Forest Service won't skimp on air reconnaissance — the low flights over the woods following thunderstorms. In the past, observers have spotted small fires that were extinguished early.

As Rasmussen and his fellow workers prepare for the summer fire season in the Northwest, they're hoping for a window of opportunity next week to ignite prescription fires in the district. Prescription fires that burn slash piles and prepare the ground for natural regeneration of trees are expected to begin Monday, Rasmussen said.

"We're probably running kind of late now," he said, "but it's better to wait than to light a fire while it's still damp and have it just skunk around."

Most prescription burns take place in the fall, after the heat has subsided and before the snow begins. Burning that can't be finished before the weather is too hot and dry can be done in the fall.

"It's looking really good for next week," Rasmussen said. "I think we'll have favorable weather."

The spring prescription fires will be ignited early in the week in the Dry Melon area above the Starkey Store and near Johnson Rock on Fly Ridge. Later in the week, there will be burning in the Spring Creek area and on the Catherine Summit.

 
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