Storms change late summer fire season

Written by Katy Nesbitt/The Observer September 16, 2013 10:43 am

The 9-acre Hamilton Fire, which broke out  Tuesday one mile north of Hilgard, was among numerous Northeast Oregon wildfires that erupted this fire season, but were held in check by initial attack crews. (Courtesy photo)
The 9-acre Hamilton Fire, which broke out Tuesday one mile north of Hilgard, was among numerous Northeast Oregon wildfires that erupted this fire season, but were held in check by initial attack crews. (Courtesy photo)
 

ENTERPRISE — What some feared would be a hot, dry season with potentially large, landscape-changing fires in Northeast Oregon, the summer turned out to be quite different.

Nathan Goodrich, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s North Zone fire management officer, said the initial attack fires were up from the last two years and more like what he calls a “normal” fire season.

“We had over 50 initial attack fires on the north zone this summer and some in late June and early July were bigger than usual,” Goodrich said.

“We had over 50 initial attack fires on the north zone this summer and some in late June and early July were bigger than usual,” Goodrich said.

Slightly below normal snowpack and below normal spring rains had local fire agencies like the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry worried, yet a combination of rapid detection, quick crew response, ample aerial support and moisture in the form of good relative humidity recovery and lightning storms that came with rain kept the region from any “major ragers.” 

Some of the early season fires weren’t stopped until they reached five to 10 acres, which is somewhat abnormal, Goodrich said, but the late season lightning storms came with rain, and many of those didn’t grow beyond a tenth of an acre.

The region experienced an above average amount of lightning. One storm had as many as 39,000 strikes in 24 hours, according to Tom Montoya, assistant forest supervisor of the Wallowa-Whitman.

“We use predictive services and it was looking like it was going to be an above normal fire season, but we fared fairly well,” Montoya said. “Most of the storms tracked through here had moisture with them and we didn’t have a lot of dry lightning starts.”

He said with the dry early summer conditions, dry lightning would have put the zone out of suppression resources. This summer, 99 percent of the fires were caught early in the initial attack phase.

The moisture, along with an agreement with the Payette and Nez Perce national forests called the Snake Salmon Agreement, as well as single engine air tankers supplied by the state, increased resources along Hells Canyon and adjacent forestland.

“The thing that saves our bacon sometimes is the three forest agreement. We are able to share resources across boundaries when we’re getting a lot of initial attack activity,” Montoya said. “We can bring over a heavy helicopter or smokejumpers and it really helps us to have those available to all of us. It’s been a really good agreement to have in place.”

Having access to more resources, especially aerial support, smokejumpers and helitack crews is crucial in remote, rugged country.

“We had resources here that in past years we haven’t had. We are partners with ODF who had a (single engine air tanker) out of
La Grande so we could catch some things before they got larger,” Montoya said. “The reason we were able to catch the Big Sheep 2 was because of those SEATs.”

The small, agile air tankers have been used more and more in the canyon country of Northeast Oregon and Western Idaho and their quick turnaround time and ability to work in steep country have been a boon to fire suppression.

Overnight relative humidity recovery also made the season quite different than was expected. Goodrich said at 15 percent relative humidity a grass fire will go out.

Goodrich said the region is now in a “typical September — slowly trending down” with shorter burn periods due to shorter days, cooler overnight temperatures and higher humidity.