Wildfire season could be busy

May 09, 2013 07:43 am

Lack of moisture has officials bracing for active summer fighting forest fires 

Wildfire season is off to an early start in Southwest Oregon, prompting officials around the region to be on guard. All of the fires were human caused, and 64 fires have burned 281 acres on land managed by the state.

Northeast Oregon is off to a slower start, but last week an escaped controlled fire between Lostine and Enterprise caught everyone’s attention. 

Though the landowner did “everything right,” according to Matt Howard of Oregon Department of Forestry, a wind devil caught the grass fire and it made run, throwing sparks across the highway.

Wallowa County’s rural fire departments responded to the blaze and were joined by state and federal agencies. The quick response kept the fire to just 4-1/2 acres. 

Howard said the mountains’ below normal snowpack is a cause for concern. 

“The Grande Ronde Basin is drying up faster than normal and it’s been a fairly dry and warm spring. Spring green-up is advanced, especially in brush species,” Howard said. “Below 6,000 feet the snow came off really early. We’ve also had a fair amount of wind, which leads to advanced drying. Looking at our fire indices and past history, May and June rainfall tell the story of our fire season.”

If the region gets rain the rest of May and into June, it could mean a “normal” fire season, but if it remains dry, the fire risk increases.

Last year, 1.2 million acres burned in Oregon, including the Long Draw Fire that burned 557,648 acres in the southeastern corner of the state. Last year’s statewide total is nearly four times the 10-year average. 

Last year’s fire season, for the Wallowa Unit, officially started July 9 and ended Oct. 22, a little shorter than usual, said Howard, but what last year’s season lacked in length, it made up for in intensity. Howard’s crews spent a good deal of their late summer protecting private land during the Cache Creek Fire, which started Aug. 19 in Hells Canyon and spread into the Imnaha River drainage.

Howard said there’s a potential for more severe fire danger this year, but lightning is the main igniter of wildland fires in Northeast Oregon.

“We usually have two to three significant lightning events a summer,” Howard said. 

Nathan Goodrich, fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service’s northern Wallowa-Whitman zone, said about 80 percent of the lightning strikes occur between July 15 and Aug. 15. Last summer’s Mud Creek Fire to the west of Highway 3, started from a lightning storm that swept the region in late July, and the Cache Creek Fire started just a couple days outside of that window.

Lightning plays such a big role because it causes
90 percent of the fire starts, Goodrich said. How much rain those storms bring in makes a big difference. Sometimes the rain puts them out before they are even detected. 

If the rest of spring catches up on rainfall, Goodrich said, there’s a better chance of catching wildfires while they are small.

“Folks are going out to the field and saying it’s pretty dry out there, it’s pretty dusty — places you couldn’t even get to the first week of June last year,” Goodrich said.

The biggest potential for large fires in the region is the canyon country of the Grande Ronde River, Joseph Creek, the Imnaha River and Hells Canyon.

“It’s some of the toughest ground out there to fight,” Goodrich said.