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Experts expect a 'normal' wildfire season

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Larger fires not anticipated until at least July or August due to heavy snowpack and wet spring weather

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Grasses and other fuels at lower elevations are expected to dry out earlier than in the forests, making fires in such areas more likely during the late spring and early summer.

When it comes to wildfire season, a heavy snowpack and wet spring can be a bit of a double-edge sword.

"The benefit of the moisture is we get a lot of growth on our grass and everything is really lush and green," said Lisa Clark with the Prineville Bureau of Land Management District. "The down side is that once that dries out, we actually have more low grass and brush as ground cover, and we have more fuel that could burn."

Going into the warmer months of the year, experts are predicting a normal wildfire season in the Central Oregon area, Clark said.

"For us, that means about 450 wildfires," she added. "Almost all of those will be kept very small — a tenth of an acre to maybe a couple acres — and we may see a couple large fires out of that. That is a typical year for us."

Because of the heavier-than-normal snowpack, larger wildfires in Central Oregon are not expected to occur until at least July and have an even greater chance of erupting in August.

"We are leaning toward a warmer and drier August," Clark said, "so by the time we get to August, we could have extra fuel on the ground and it could be hot and dry. We could be looking at some of those fire starts growing into large fires."

Clark said this situation is further exacerbated by the fact that thousands of people will be coming to the Central Oregon area for the solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

"We are going to have a lot more people out and about," she said. "We could probably see an increase in human-caused starts as well."

Prior to July, the locations most at risk for fire include rangelands, where grasses and shrubs tend to dry out earlier, and river canyons, which typically see higher temperatures than mountain forests.

"Beginning June 1, we have annual restrictions that happen each year for the BLM on the John Day River, part of the Crooked River and the Lower Deschutes River," Clark said.

As summer approaches, preparation for the upcoming wildfire season has already begun.

"We are gearing up like we do every year," Clark stated. "We have got our new firefighters reporting now and in early June, we have guard school where we train anyone who is a brand-new firefighter."

And although the predictions give firefighters a sense of what might happen this season, Clark points out that things don't always go as expected.

"Obviously, these are predictions," she said. "We'll tell you in September or October how accurate they actually were."