Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

LA GRANDE – While many parts of the state have declared the beginning of fire season, Northeast Oregon may not see restrictions until close to July 4.

Fire season has been declared in the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Central and Klamath-Lake districts, but Joe Hessell, Northeast Oregon District forester, said at a pre-fire season media conference call June 18, his district is lagging behind.

“We are not in fire season yet, but we are on track for a normal season,” Hessell said. “Things will be hot and dry in Northeast Oregon for most of the summer.”

The Northeast District includes Baker, Union, Umatilla and Wallowa counties with terrain varying from sagebrush desert to low elevation canyons, dry pine forests and at most higher elevations, subalpine fir, spruce and lodgepole.

Hessell said most of the private land the district protects is generally below the 5,000-foot elevation mark. Many of those private holdings are adjacent to public lands managed by the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests.

During Monday’s wildland fire media call Noel Livingston, fire staff officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, echoed Hessell when he said the region’s extended summer forecast is expected to be hot and dry.

“If you look at winter and spring across Northeast Oregon, we started off below normal snowpack,”
Livingston said. “Later in the winter the higher elevations approached more normal levels, but the lower elevations stayed drier.”

In the southern half of the Wallowa-Whitman, Livingston said, May was warmer than average and the snowmelt came off at least two weeks early. In Wallowa County it’s a different story. The county’s cool and wet May and rainy June are anomalies to the region, said Matt Howard, Wallowa Unit forester, in a phone interview Monday afternoon.

“Up in the (Wallowa) valley it’s pretty wet compared to Pendleton and the Unity country. They have very different climates even though, by air miles, they are not that far apart,” Howard said.

Rain is forecasted for the rest of the week in Wallowa County, but the extended outlook is for drier skies by the weekend and little chance of rain after June 27.

“We are going to start drying out. Once this weather turns I would be shocked if we weren’t in fire season,” Howard said. “By the end of this week or next, we will need to start thinking about instituting fire prevention measures to the public.”

“It’s going to dry out next week, then we will come into drier thunderstorm season,” Goodrich said.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer