How wild will this fire season be?
The wildfire season is expected to start out relatively normal this spring but pick up momentum during the later summer months.
The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center says in its May 1 Climate and Significant Fire Potential Outlook report that normal significant wildland fire potential is predicted for the Central Oregon area through June and then above normal significant large fire potential is expected east of the Cascade crest in July and August.
While that is the case, Patrick Lair, public affairs specialist for Ochoco National Forest, points out that fire seasons are "notoriously hard to predict because fire activity will depend on so many different variables."
But what is known is that last winter in Central Oregon was slightly warmer and drier than average and that snowpack in the region is very low, with many places about 50 percent of normal. That trend continued into the spring as April had average temperatures and average to slightly average precipitation.
Because this weather trend is expected to continue, Lair said that this past Friday, national forest lands in Central Oregon moved to a "moderate" fire danger rating. He added that warmer temperatures and lower-than-normal precipitation is expected next month through August.
To help minimize the potential for large wildfires, the Ochoco National Forest staff recently completed a series of prescribed burns.
"The Forest and (Crooked River National) Grassland had an especially productive winter and spring, accomplishing more than 7,000 acres of prescribed fire," Lair said. "Fire managers made use of a warmer, drier winter and spring to take advantage of opportunities to complete planned burning projects. We really appreciate the public's patience and tolerance of some extra smoky days while we accomplished these important forest treatments."
Lair singled out the Spears prescribed burn as a huge success "thanks to the great planning of a host of partners."
"Fire managers successfully burned 900 acres of the Spears unit on Monday, May 14, and finished the other 300 acres on Tuesday, May 15, just before a rain storm arrived that wetted the burning fuels and pushed smoke out of the area," he said. "The Ochoco National Forest had been trying to finish the Spears unit for seven years and never had a good window of opportunity. Last spring, we started the unit and burned several hundred acres before the burn was rained out."
Lair explained that the burn applied low intensity fire across the landscape, consuming ground fuels and recycling nutrients back into the soil. The expected result is a safer, healthier piece of ground that will be more productive in terms of forage and less likely to burn at high intensity should a wildfire occur.
"It was an important piece to treat in order to better protect houses up and down the Highway 26 corridor," Lair said.
While the Spears prescribed burn was a success, it didn't come without some challenges. Lair explained that this time of year, wildfire activity is picking up in other parts of the country, and that draws firefighters away from the Central Oregon area.
"In order to complete the Spears burn, we enlisted the help of many partners. Without their help, the project would not have happened," he said. "Those partners include Crook County Fire and Rescue, Sunriver Fire Department, Oregon Department of Forestry, La Grande Interagency Hotshot Crew, Zig Zag Interagency Hotshot Crew, Wolf Creek Interagency Hotshot Crew, and Heli-Rappellers from Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho."