Weather — National Weather Service issues a rare mid-winter fire warning for much of southwestern Oregon

By Saul Hubbard, Register Guard reporter, for the Northwest News Exchange

Don’t let the recently ubiquitous damp fog fool you. January has been dry, dry, dry for western Oregon.

Last week, the National Weather Service issued a fire weather watch covering all of southwest Oregon, from Drain to the California border and from the coast to the Cascades. The warning, which lasted through Friday, was highly unusual for January, National Weather Service meteorologist Clinton Rockey said, adding such warnings in western Oregon are more frequent toward the end of the summer and early fall.

The meteorologist said the warning was issued because of a combination of much drier than usual natural fuels — fallen branches, twigs and other flammable debris — and “pretty powerful offshore wind patterns” expected to hit the region from the west later in the week.

“Any fire that does develop has a decent chance of spreading,” he said. The most significant risk of rapidly spreading fire was at elevations above 3,500 feet, but residents of the entire region were warned to be cautious with open flames and mechanical equipment.

Ten days without rain

Through Jan. 22, Eugene had seen 10 consecutive days and 14 total days of no rain in January. Should it not rain again until the end of the month, January 2014 could set all-time records in both categories.

Dry spell began in November

The low January rainfall isn’t particularly unusual on its own — in 2013, total rainfall for the month was 1.27 inches, and 2009 and 2011 both saw January rainfalls of around 2 inches. But, combined with two extremely dry months in November and December, this dry spell could lead to greater concerns if it carries into the spring.

“Last year’s dry January came after big chunks of wet weather in the spring and fall (of 2012),” Rockey said. “We haven’t really had that (in recent months). If things don’t turn around here shortly, there’s going to be concern across the Northwest.”

Joe Harwood, a spokesman for the Eugene Water & Electric Board, said, despite lower than average flow rates in the Columbia River system since October, the utility is not overly concerned yet about the lack of rain for its water supply.

Still time for snowpack

“There’s still time to build up a good, or at least decent, snowpack,” Harwood said, adding “The snowpack in the West Cascades can build up pretty quickly in February, March and April if we get a few heavy storms.”

The fog and stagnant air that has enveloped much of the Willamette Valley over the past two weeks or so is expected to continue, at least in patches, through this week.

“This stubborn high pressure that has kept the air stuck in the valley like a lid is the big story of the month,” Rockey said.

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