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Total acres burned in Central Oregon nearly doubled the 10-year average; season costs more than $2 billion nationally

OCHOCO NATIONAL FOREST - The Desolation fire, which started in early September, grew to more than 4,000 acres as local firefighter crews waited for resources demanded by larger, higher priority fires throughout Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

The 2017 fire season is seemingly winding down after what has proven to be a record-setting year both locally and nationally.

In the Central Oregon region, the fire season started in late June, and activity exceeded averages for the area. According to data compiled by Patrick Lair, spokesman for Ochoco National Forest, wildfires burned a total of 93,442 acres regionally. The data includes all Forest Service, BLM, Oregon Department of Forestry and the local rangeland fire protection associations.

"Our 10-year average in Central Oregon is 50,571 acres per year, meaning this year fires burned nearly twice the acreage as average (technically almost 185 percent of average)," Lair added. "One reason for the number of acres burned might be the heavy winter we had last year. We received a great deal of precipitation last fall and this spring, which created an abundance of grasses and shrubs. Sometime in early summer, around June, the rain just stopped, and all those grasses cured out."

Lair went on to note that the region received several rounds of heavy lightning activity throughout the summer, especially in August, and each time resulted in wildfires. When those lightning starts occurred during periods of hot, dry, windy weather, they grew rapidly, and some of them became the large fires that still continue to burn, such as the Milli, Nash and Desolation fires.

While the amount of acres burned dwarfed the 10-year average, the number of fires in the region (358) was more than 200 below the 10-year average of 562.

This does not, however, suggest that the fires were larger overall. Lair points out that the numbers are skewed by the 2,113 fires that emerged during the 2008 season.

Another notable difference between this fire season and most in the Central Oregon area is that more than half of the fires in Central Oregon on federal and state-managed lands were human-caused this year.

"Over the last 10 years, lightning starts have outnumbered human starts 2 to 1 on average in Central Oregon," Lair offered for comparison.

Because the Central Oregon region was one of several areas throughout the Pacific Northwest facing an abundance of wildfires, resources were stretched throughout the area, making it difficult for local agencies to respond quickly to every reported fire start.

"The country was at Preparedness Level 5, the highest level, for 40 days. In the Pacific Northwest, we were at Preparedness Level 5 for 38 days, a new record. In 2015, during that very busy fire season, we were at PL5 for 23 days," Lair said. "Preparedness Level 5 is the highest level there is, signifying the peak level of wildfire activity and greatest demand for available firefighting personnel and equipment."

The high number of fires and roughly 678,000 acres that burned has cost state, federal, local, tribal and private entities more than $340 million, according to state authorities. More than 8,000 personnel from different agencies have been deployed to fight 1,903 separate wildland fires across the state. That's more than one-third of the personnel deployed to combat wildfires nationwide, said Doug Grafe, fire protection division chief at the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Gov. Kate Brown deployed the Oregon National Guard Aug. 2 to respond to several severe fires. National Guard helicopters assisted with the rescue of trapped hikers and poured 1.3 million gallons of water on burning land and structures. ODF has released the helicopters after 45 days of duty.

The state placed 950 National Guardsmen on state active duty, a high for any year since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when 1,979 Oregon National Guard personnel were deployed, said Dave Stuckey, deputy director of the Oregon Military Department.

The governor's order to deploy the National Guard covered four fires: Eagle Creek, Nena Springs, Milli and Chetco Bar. Those four fires alone threatened 19,978 residences and destroyed 10. Nearly 8,000 people were evacuated in those areas. The cost of fighting the fire was about $15.3 million, said Oregon Fire Marshal Jim Walker.

Oregon is one of the few states with a wildfire insurance policy but that will cover only 42,000 acres, or about 6 percent of the affected areas in the state, Walker said.

Nationally, the 2017 season was recently announced as the most expensive on record by the U.S. Forest Service. More than 27,000 people have supported firefighting activities during peak Western fire season, costing more than $2 billion. In the Pacific Northwest, as of Sept. 15, more than 8,800 people, 413 engines, and 68 helicopters were actively engaged on 23 large uncontained fires with an estimated cost-to-date of $448,457,752.

Approximately 2.1 million acres of National Forest system lands have burned nationwide, a total that is approximately 58 percent greater than the 10-year average for mid-September.

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