PENDLETON — Despite high winds and temperatures the last few days, firefighters have subdued blazes across the Umatilla National Forest.
However, with increased public land use during hunting season, wildfire risk remains a concern in the coming weeks.
“While September is here, we still have hot and dry weather forecasted that is expected to persist through the next few weeks,” said Tyson Albrecht, acting fire staff officer. “This means fires are more likely to spread rapidly once ignited.”
Albrecht said the public’s awareness of the increasing fire danger and cooperation is essential to helping maintain a safe fire season.
“Please help us prevent human-caused fires by using caution when recreating in the woods and closely adhering to restrictions that are in place when visiting national forest lands,” he said.
Darcy Weseman, public affairs officer for the Umatilla National Forest, said fires started from storms that moved through the region Aug. 19 had firefighters scrambling to find more than 100 reported fires. In all, she said, 45 fires were located — 30 on the Walla Walla district alone. While some stayed small, a few grew large enough for the forest to ask for help from the Northern Rockies overhead team that oversaw both the Meacham Complex and the Rattlesnake Fire south of Pomeroy in the Tucannon-Wenaha Wilderness.
The forest took over management of the Meacham Complex from the Northern Rockies team Aug. 30. All of those fires, including the three largest — Hagar Ridge, 57 acres; Horse Fire, 169 acres; and Incident 896, 40 acres, are all contained. Local crews are monitoring and patrolling.
The Rattlesnake Fire, that burned 497 acres, is 95% contained with a fire line around 95% of its perimeter. It, too, was turned back to local control this week. Weseman said the northeast corner of the fire has been the most active, where it abuts the south side of the Tucannon River, and heavy fuels are still smoking.
“Crews are busy with mop-up, cooling hot spots, building water bars and rehabilitating the fire line,” Weseman said.
Weseman said fighting the Rattlesnake Fire and Meacham Complex have been costly, with a combined price tag of approximately $4.2 million.
For the public’s safety, Weseman said there still are area closures in place around the Rattlesnake Fire — Forest Service Road 47 to the 4712 and 4713 roads are closed as well as the Panjab Trail and the Rattlesnake Trail.
The Forest Service issued Phase B restrictions for the coming weeks, meaning campfires are only allowed in designated campgrounds and chain saw use is prohibited. Weseman said fire managers ask people not to drive across dry grass and to only smoke inside a vehicle.
“No lightning is predicted, but with tinder-dry fuels these precautions will reduce the risk of wildfires,” she said.
As for the rest of September, some firefighters are already returning to school, but out-of-area resources are backfilling those positions.
Albrecht said the forest will have use of air support — helicopters, air tankers and spotter planes — through the end of September.
“We are at Preparedness Level 4 for the Pacific Northwest Region, but our crews are available for any new fire starts,” Weseman said.