The shortest fire season Oregon has had since at least the turn of the century is over.
The 2019 fire season ended Wednesday on all lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry. State statistics indicate there were a total of 923 wildfires on ODF-protected lands this year, burning a total of 16,867 acres, 56% below average according to an ODF news release.
The fire season, determined by the average number of days in fire season across all ODF districts, was the shortest in the 21st century at only 99 days. This is about three weeks shorter than the 121-day fire season average for the ODF across all districts, according to the news release.
Fire season was mild in Northeast Oregon, as it was in most of the rest of the state. In the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, a total of 5,658 acres were burned, far below the annual average of about 20,000 acres, said Noel Livingston, WWNF forest fire staff officer.
The total number of fires in the national forest was about average, and weather conditions were also average. The difference was that fuels in the forest, which include ground vegetation, had above average moisture content, Livingston said. This above average moisture content did not prevent or extinguish blazes, but it allowed crews to get to fires early before they could expand.
“(Higher fuel moisture content) delays fire growth. Fires do not take off instantly (when fuel moisture content is high),” Livingston said.
This made it possible for crews to reach fires this summer when it was still relatively easy to contain them.
“We were very successful on our initial attacks,” Livingston said.
Due to the relatively mild fire season throughout the state, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest had more resources at its disposal throughout the summer for regional fires since it was not having to send firefighters and equipment to other parts of the Northwest to assist with other blazes.
“There were more resources to go around,” Livingston said. “We were not strapped.”
Another plus, he added, was that the lightning that started many of the region’s fires was accompanied by rain more frequently, robbing the lightning of some of its impact.
The biggest fire in the Wallowa-Whitman NF was the Granite Gulch Fire, which scorched about 5,550 acres, 98% of the total burned in the national forest this season. The fire, started by lightning on July 28, remained far from private lands and structures.
“I was extremely pleased with our efforts on the fire,” Livingston said.
He said the fire never posed a threat to structures or private land because it was deep in the wilderness. Livingston said it had less potential to grow because the terrain provided natural barriers including large exposures of barren rock.
The Granite Gulch Fire may have improved the health of the area’s forest by reducing the fuel buildup, making it less vulnerable to major fires in the future. The burn scars created by the blaze are another plus because they will create a buffer that will make it harder for future fires to advance, Livingston said.
The area served by the La Grande-based Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center, which is responsible for mobilizing fire resources in Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington, had 219 fires this year that burned a total of 6,200 acres, the majority of which were in the Granite Gulch Fire.
Lighting caused 165 of the fires in the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center’s service area, and 54 were human caused. Those caused by people included ones started by escaped campfires and equipment use, said Jerry Garrett, assistant manager of the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center.
Garrett said fire activity was light enough in Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington that the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center was able to send two 20-person hotshot fire crews to Alaska for 14-day shifts, plus other resources.
He said Alaska was the only place in the United States that had major forest fire activity this year.
The end of fire season in Oregon removes restrictions on ODF-protected lands intended to prevent wildfire, such as on backyard debris burning and use of certain equipment. Many city and rural fire departments in Oregon, however, still require a permit for debris burning. The Oregon Department of Forestry is encouraging everyone to check with their local fire department before starting a burn.