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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lack of snowpack could mean early Central Oregon fire season


By Dylan J. Darling The Bulletin Mar 20, 2015

A warm winter with light snowfall in the mountains near Bend means wildfire season could come early.

Timber fires do not typically occur in Central Oregon until August, said Ed Keith, Deschutes County forester, but the lack of snow may lead to big blazes earlier. “This year it may be June or July,” he said Wednesday.

Last winter was similar, although with more snow, and a late spring wildfire brought a scare to Bend before Central Oregon’s usual summer fire season. The 6,908-acre Two Bulls Fire started June 7 and prompted the evacuation of nearly 200 homes in and near west Bend. The human-caused blaze, the exact cause of which remains under investigation by the Oregon Department of Forestry, burned mainly through private timberland near Tumalo Reservoir. While fire season last year was busy around the Northwest, few fires affected Bend after the Two Bulls Fire.

Whether fire season comes early this year this year depends on weather this spring, which starts today. Spring begins with a dismal snowpack in Central Oregon.

 The Deschutes/Crooked River Basin snowpack was only 9 percent of normal for this time of year as of Wednesday, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Many of the automated snow sites monitored by the federal agency report no snow for the first time in three decades of recording data. A year ago the basin had 54 percent of the normal snowpack on March 20.

Rain fell in Bend last week, and the National Weather Service forecast calls for springlike weather, with rain expected to fall in Bend tonight and rain and snow possible early next week.

“We are gaining some precipitation now, which will help,” said Rachel Cobb, a Weather Service meteorologist in Pendleton, “but I don’t know if it will be enough to make up for what we didn’t get over the winter.”

Starting next week, Cobb plans to start compiling daily fire weather forecasts Monday through Friday, detailing temperatures, relative humidity and wind patterns — weather factors used by firefighters to determine potential fire behavior.

For now, firefighters chiefly use the forecasts to plan controlled burns, which have already begun in Central Oregon, but later they use them for wildfires. During wildfire season the weather service produces fire weather forecasts seven days a week.

The Oregon Department of Forestry does not have any immediate plans to start staffing for fire season or issue fire restrictions early, but that could change with the weather, said George Ponte, Central Oregon District forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry in Prineville.

The lack of snowfall has left grasses in forests around Central Oregon ready to burn, he said. Snow typically crunches down grasses, lowering the likelihood of the grasses holding a flame once the snow has melted. Without snow, the grasses are taller and warm weather could dry them out.

“Those could go at any time with a spark or a careless match,” Ponte said, noting that most early season wildfires in Central Oregon are caused by people.


Comments and questions

The purpose of this blog is to provide breaking news about wildfire activity on the forestlands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry. We invite you to post questions or comments about current wildfires. Please keep your posts civil and free of profanity.

Current wildfire info

National weather forecasters predictions that Oregon would see above average temperatures and below average rainfall in the summer of 2018 proved true. Almost all of Oregon was abnormally dry this summer, with a majority of the state in moderate to severe drought. Many areas posted record high temperatures or record strings of hot days. These conditions set the stage for potentially large, fast-moving wildfires.

What we do

Protection jurisdiction
The Oregon Dept. of Forestry protects 16 million acres of private and public forestlands from wildfire. This includes all private forestlands in Oregon as well as state and local government-owned forests, along with 2.8 million acres of federal Bureau of Land Management lands in the western part of the state. In total there are about 30.4 million acres of forest in Oregon.

Fire suppression policy
The department fights fire aggressively, seeking to put out most fires at 10 acres or smaller. This approach minimizes damage to the timber resource and fish and wildlife habitat, and protects lives and property. It also saves money. While suppressing large fires can cost millions of dollars, economic and environmental damage from wildfires can be many times greater.


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Oregon Dept. of Forestry's public information officers in Salem, Ore., maintain this blog. During the wildfire season, we spend much of our time reporting on fires and firefighting to news media and the public.