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Combination of drought and drier than normal weather could result in more fires than previous summer

GRAPHIC COURTESY OF OCHOCO NATIONAL FOREST
 - Wildfire activity throughout the Pacific Northwest is expected to pick up throughout the summer as evidenced by the Large Fire Outlook graphic. The red areas are expected to see above normal wildfire activity.

Drought conditions and the expectation of higher-than-average summer temperatures have local wildfire experts anticipating an active upcoming season.

The winter snowpack showed some early reason for optimism, but the runoff from that snowpack wasn't as plentiful as usual, resulting in dry conditions going into the summer months.

"Normally, we get some really good runoffs during April, but this year, because of the unusually warm and dry conditions, the runoff just basically disappeared into the ground," said Ochoco Irrigation District Manager Bruce Scanlon.

The Bureau of Reclamation reported that Crook County is experiencing the second-driest water year in the past four decades, Scanlon added, and drought monitoring at the Natural Resources Conservation Service puts the area in the "severe drought" category.

The National Weather Service recently reported that May was a warmer than usual month, but precipitation was greater than average. June was predicted to have normal rainfall, which Jeff Kitchens, acting manager of the Prineville Bureau of Land Management District, said should push off large fire growth for a little while. However, July, August, and September are a different story for Oregon.

"We expect to have an above normal potential for significant wildfires to start and spread throughout most of our state and much of the Northwest," Kitchens said.

Wildfire fuels like grasses, brush, and trees are already well on their way to drying out, Kitchens said.

"Some of our lightest grasses are already dry, and we've already had a 900-acre wildfire along the John Day River," Kitchens said. "Central Oregon is now classified as either abnormally dry or even moving into moderate drought. Warmer temperatures than average and lower precipitation are expected to persist through the end of August at least."

Going into early June, the Central Oregon area already had about 75 wildfires for the year, but they have been suppressed quickly.

"That should be the case until the end of June, when all of the hot and dry really catches up to us," Kitchens said.

The ability to keep up with fires throughout the season will depend on the availability of firefighting crews and equipment. Lisa Clark, public affairs specialist for the Prineville Bureau of Land Management District, said that the BLM and U.S. Forest Service staff up every season with hand crews, engines, water tenders, dozers, helicopters and crews, hotshot crews, smokejumpers and more. "The competition comes when multiple regions have large fires going at the same time that require more resources than are available locally," she said. "In those situations, geographic coordination centers or the national coordination center will prioritize where resources are assigned based on fire complexity and threats to lives, property and other resources." 

Clark added that the Central Oregon region has started to share resources with the (U.S.) Southwest, where their fire season is beginning.

"In turn, if we have large fires in late July and August, the Southwest often sends resources our way, as the monsoons have effectively ended their season."


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