Up until mid-February, 2019’s fire season was looking to be a dry one because of the light snowfall in early winter. Oregon Public Radio, The Oregonian and other publications across the state ran multiple news stories outlining worries from officials about the coming summer, but once the snow finally arrived, the headlines changed to reflect a more positive outlook.
“After a February of Blizzards, Oregon Snowpack Levels Are Now Above Average for Most of the State,” read one Willamette Week article from March 12.
A day later, The Hermiston Herald declared “Ample snowfall boosts Oregon snowpack.”
Snowpack is a term used to describe the amount of compressed snow that remains in high altitudes after winter is over. Throughout the warm months of the year, the snowpack will gradually melt off the mountains, keeping the ground and plants of lower altitudes — like the Grande Ronde Valley — moist for some time.
Mitch Williams, wildfire protection supervisor for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said the rate at which the snowpack melts is especially important in the outcome of fire season for Northeast Oregon.
“It all depends on how the snow goes off,” he said. “If it warms up within a month to 60 degrees, everything at 5,000 feet will run off, then it’s not much of a continuation of keeping fuels wet, which leads to what you get in May or June.”
Jody Prummer, Grande Ronde Fire Zone management officer, agrees with Williams.
“With snow this late, it’s how fast the snow comes off the hills that matters,” Prummer said. “The slower the snow comes off, the longer it takes to dry and will delay fire season.”
But Williams said a factor other than the snowpack is more responsible for the onset and the intensity of fire season in Northeast Oregon.
“It’s all about the weather,” said Williams, who has been working with the Oregon Department of Forestry for 30 years. “With late snowfall, people think it would delay fire season, but it’s so dependent on the weather. If we don’t have any moisture from April to August, we won’t know any difference with the snowpack.”
Williams said the reason the weather is such a huge factor for fire season is because if “green fuels” — like living grasses, trees and other plants — dry out from little to no rainfall in the spring and early summer, fires will start earlier and spread faster.
“In my experience, the biggest predictor we’ve had of a bad fire season is if we’re in drought,” he said. “Every year we have our green fires, but in years when green fuels are dry, they become a more susceptible fuel load that contributes to the significance of the fires.”
Although fire season for the Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests once began in August, Williams said it typically now picks up around the Fourth of July. He said this is because of the lack of summer storms in the area.
“We haven’t had a wet summer for six to eight years,” he said. “We’re just having abnormal weather and dryness.”
To prepare for this year’s fire season, the La Grande Wildland Urban Interface Committee — composed of representatives from the City of La Grande, La Grande Fire Department, Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, Union County Emergency Services and community members — met for the first time in mid-February. Williams is a member of this committee.
“There’s been an ask from our community for (wildfire safety) to be addressed by city planners,” Williams said. “I think (the increased interest) is probably based on the California wildfires.”
Last year, the town of Paradise, California, was burned to the ground in the worst wildfire of the state’s history. Williams visited the area where the town used to be two weeks ago, describing the scene as “devastating” with vehicles “melted down” and bottles on the shelves of a liquor store reduced to piles of liquified glass.
“I couldn’t imagine being in a situation like that, with a fire burning and the only option is to get out,” he said.
The Rooster Peak fire, the worst fire in Northeast Oregon in recent memory, burned through 6,000 acres of land and destroyed six homes near La Grande in 1973. Williams said a fire like that popping up again is a “big worry” for the La Grande Wildland Urban Interface Committee, and their goal is to teach fire safety to the community in order to reduce the threat of wildfire spreading into populated areas.
Prummer said the fact that Union County is a rural community gives it a headstart in fire preparedness compared to the more urban areas of the state.
“I do think our community is more educated on fire and fire dangers because it’s smaller and more rural, so a lot of folks live and work in the woods,” he said. “They understand more about their surroundings because they’ve lived here most of their lives.”
As for the 2019 fire season, Prummer said he can’t see it starting early based on the current snowpack, but it’s hard to say.
“As long as the snow comes off at a moderate rate, we likely won’t have an early fire season,” he said. “Last year we had a good winter, and this year is stacking up to be like last year.”
Williams was hesitant to give his input on the upcoming fire season because it’s still pretty early and many factors could change, but he did offer this insight.
“When green trees are low on moisture and burn easily is when we have our worst seasons in Union County,” he said. “We’ll have days when the relative humidity is low and the wind is hard, but typically when we have a drought and life fuel moistures are down is when we have the worst fires.”