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Low snowpack, lack of spring rain makes Central Oregon region ripe for wildfires this summer

PHOTO COURTESY OF OCHOCO NATIONAL FOREST
 - Forest officials to focus on limiting human-caused wildfires as dry conditions make fires likely this summer.

Severe drought conditions and warmer and drier-than-normal weather is expected to bring the Central Oregon area a potentially busy wildfire season.

The National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook reports that "significant fire potential is expected to increase to above normal for portions of southern and central Oregon … during June." In addition, the climate outlooks indicate warmer and drier-than-normal conditions are likely for much of the West through the summer, exacerbating drought in the area.

Currently, conditions are not as concerning for wildfire potential.

"We are nationally at a preparedness level 2," said Kassidy Kern, public affairs specialist with Ochoco National Forest. "The Northwest is at a preparedness level 1. Our fire danger is still currently moderate. That is good for us right now."

But it won't stay that way for long, and Kern is urging people to exercise more caution and stay prepared as the fire season ramps up in the next few weeks.

"Dry conditions alone don't start fires, so we are going to wait and see what lightning comes our way, but what we will need to focus on this year is controlling human ignitions," she said. "We are already seeing an uptick in human-caused starts this year. We have been picking up a lot of abandoned campfires and that is exactly the thing that we don't want to do."

The wildland fire outlook notes that while wildfire activity has been light thus far – 200 fires burning about 1,700 acres – "human-caused starts from debris burning, agricultural burning and recreation fires accounted for most of the incidents."

This is not a new development. Kern points out that during the past 10 years, the region as seen a steady increase in the number of human ignitions.

"That went up fairly dramatically last summer because we had so many people up on the forest," she said. "We have seen that in terms of people lighting fireworks in the forest, which is illegal year-round."

People are also not bringing enough water with them to properly extinguish campfires. Kern stressed that campfires should be cool to the touch before people leave them unattended. Other human activities causing fires include dragging trailer chains, which creates sparks in dry grass, and one person, during the past month, was shooting exploding targets.

"There are so many ways that we can do better," Kern said. "That is what we are going to have to focus on in dry years like this one."

In addition to exercising caution and avoiding activities on the forest that could start fires, Kern encourages people to take care of certain activities on the forest as early as possible. Currently, wood cutting is still allowed, but at some point, as the fire danger increases, that activity and others will get restricted.

Kern went on to suggest some ways for people who live near the forest to prepare their homes in advance of the wildfire season. She recommended raking up pine needles, limbing trees and creating a barrier around the home that is free of fire fuels.

"This is going to be a good year to get your to-go bag ready," she added. The bag should be packed with personal papers, prescriptions, a few days' worth of clothing and other essentials.

"If something happens, it would be right near the door where you would be able to pick it up and walk out," she said.

As people prepare for the wildfire season, Forest Service personnel are completing work to keep the impact of the wildfire season as minimal as possible.

"We have focused our prescribed burns this year in particular around places that are closer to communities," Kern said. "Now, we have the security of knowing if something does start in there, we just put fire on the ground and now, we can safely put firefighters in there to engage that fire before it threatens private property."


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