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Central Oregon may face above-average fire season


Conditions are similar to 2013, when Oregon had the fourth highest total of wildfires throughout the 50 states

If last year’s fire season seemed a bit busier than usual last year, there is probably a good reason for it.

Turns out, based on statistics compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center, that Oregon had the fourth highest total of wildfires in the U.S. With 2,848 blazes last year, the state total did not come in far behind third-ranked Georgia at 2,942, and exceeded No. 5 Arizona by more than 1,000 fires.

Locally, Ochoco National Forest and the Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management saw more fires than normal, but they burned fewer acres. The 64 fires on the Ochoco in 2013 tops the average of 59, but the 602 acres burned is well below the 15,000-acre average. The BLM district experienced 113 fires, compared to an average of 101, but again the 5,538 acres the fires consumed comes well short of the 26,000-acre average.

BLM spokesperson Lisa Clark said that the acreage discrepancy can be attributed to a variety of factors, including fire reporting, response times, weather, and fuel conditions.

To a certain extent, the wildfire conditions last year were created by a wetter-than-normal spring that accelerated the growth of grasses and other fuels, followed by a hot summer that dried out the vegetation.

“By late summer, you have a continuous fuel bed, so when you do get some kind of ignition, you have a higher probability of that thing escaping the initial attack and spreading,” said NIFC spokesman Ken Frederick.

So far, the weather in 2014 has followed a similar pattern during the spring, and climate outlooks are calling for a warmer and drier-than-normal summer. While that typically spells higher fire danger, it doesn’t necessarily mean a more active fire season than last year.

Frederick said it is hard to predict whether or not one year will see more wildfires than another because fires are caused by human activity and lightning as well as weather and fuels conditions.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the potential for an active fire season exists, particularly given the smaller-than-normal snowpack this year.

“If you don’t have much of a snowpack, even if you had a bunch of rain, you are going to dry out in the middle and upper elevations sooner, and they are more susceptible to wildfire.”

While weather conditions and lightning strikes are out of human control, Frederick said that people can help keep the outbreak of wildfires this year as minimal as possible by exercising caution.

“(If you are) smoking, have a little cleared area and make sure no embers or ash drops off your cigarette and properly extinguish it,” he said. “People think they are doing a good job of taking care of a (camp) fire, but you must verify that.”

Frederick suggested that a person pour water on the fire and stir it with a stick, then hold the back of their hand, which is sensitive to heat, above the ashes to see if they are still hot. He went on to offer a visual cue.

“That powdery white ash means that the embers didn’t get water on it.”