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Heavy snowpack and rainy spring has helped slow drying of wildfire fuels locally

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY OCHOCO NATIONAL FOREST
 - Firefighters battle the Desolation Fire, which erupted near Prineville late last summer.

A late snowstorm and rainy spring should result in an average wildfire season locally, but the unpredictable nature of ignitions makes the season challenging to predict.

Patrick Lair, public affairs specialist for Ochoco National Forest, said the forest snowpack was bolstered by a substantial amount of snowfall in late February and early March. A couple of rainy months followed, which really helped keep fire risk low on the Ochoco.

"It was actually so wet in the Ochocos this spring that we didn't do any prescribed burning," he said.

Dennis Teitzel, Prineville BLM District Manager, gave a similar report, noting that local snowfall came late and some of it, particularly in the eastern part of the state, is still around. He went on to note that more recent weather has begun to dry out the landscape, but conditions still remain favorable.

"In May, we started off pretty dry, and we even had a few fires," Teitzel recently stated. "Fortunately, we got a couple weeks of heavy rain at the end of the month and this reset the clock a bit on fuel drying out. From an overall picture, the good news is that for the first time in quite a while, Oregon has no areas of drought going into this fire season."

Lair likewise said that the forest is starting to dry out as weather is warming and the rain has stopped falling. However, conditions haven't yet reached a point where significant wildfire activity is anticipated.

"This time of year, it is very normal for that to happen," he said of the drying trend. "But we are still not dry enough to go into public use restrictions yet."

Lair added that a couple small fires were sparked by recent thunderstorms, but that level of activity this time of year is typical in an average fire season. He went on to note that Central Oregon's 10-year average is about 550 wildfires per summer, burning an average of about 54,000 acres. While that is the case, the average is comprised of vastly different numbers from year to year.

"Those numbers fluctuate wildly on any given year," he said. "They can be far below that or they can be way above that." As an example, he noted that 300,000 acres of Central Oregon land was consumed by wildfire last summer.

Teitzel compares predicting a wildfire season to picking a winning horse.

"You take a lot of information into account, from a horse's past performance to track conditions," he said. "In the end, you're never sure the outcome of the race until the horse crosses the finish line."

What the public lands agencies do know is that wildfire seasons tend to ratchet up during the summer months, with peak conditions for wildfire activity in August. Lair added that the wet winter and spring weather could result in more fuels than normal later in the summer.

"It produces a big crop of grass," he said. "When all of that grass cures out, which it will, it can carry wildfire quite well."

At this point, if wildfire activity escalates locally, firefighters should still have adequate resources to suppress them. Lair notes that while there are some large fires in other states, activity on a national level is relatively quiet.

"As far as stress on the system, the system is not stretched thin at this point," he remarked.

That is likely to change by August, Lair added, as the number of fires increases and resources are demanded throughout the country.

"It becomes a game of shifting resources strategically," he said.


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