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.