Central Oregon fire season is off to an early start, and drought conditions make it crucial for people to exercise extreme caution on public lands

PHOTO COURTESY OF OCHOCO NATIONAL FOREST  - Wildfires, such as the Grandview Fire last summer, are more likely to occur from human casued ignitionsWith Central Oregon facing historic drought conditions heading into the summer, it should come as no surprise that experts are predicting an active fire season.

But most wildfires are still human caused, so public lands staff is already urging people to be cautious as they spend time on the national forests and grassland this spring and summer.

According to Kassidy Kern, public affairs specialist for Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland, the fire season has gotten off to an early start.

"We are already seeing an exceptional amount of fire on the landscape across the nation, and we have barely gotten into May," she said. "The significant wildfire potential for Central Oregon remains at above normal fire potential through the summer. That means we are at critical extreme drought conditions across Central Oregon and people can just look at the Prineville Reservoir to see that. Although we have made up some ground with our snowpack, we will have very critical drought conditions."

Therefore, public lands officials are urging campers and other recreators on the forest, grassland and other public lands in general to use caution and prepare adequately for fire safety and wildfire prevention as they enjoy the great outdoors.

"We just want to remind people that we are expecting to see a lot of fire on the landscape across the West this year," she said. "So, whatever we can do to minimize any human-caused ignitions, we really need to do that this year."

Kern noted that the drought isn't the only weather-related issue that could create problems. The region has experience more significant wind events than usual, and she noted that strong winds can pick up embers, even old ones, and spark a wildfire.

Even people who are burning yard debris in their back yard should show extra vigilance, Kern said. She recommends that watering those fires and dousing them until they are cold to the touch, just like expert recommend for campfires.

"If you are headed out to do some firewood cutting, make sure that you equipment, including spark arresters, is in good working order," she added. People riding ATVs or motorcycles on public lands should likewise make sure spark arresters are working properly and motorists should avoid parking on top of tall grasses, and smokers are urged not to throw cigarette butts out car windows.

Kern said that forest officials have not yet put any restrictions in place — some locations have not even opened for the season yet. How long it will stay that way is difficult to predict, but she points out that the behavior of people on public lands will play a role.

"We have thus far been able to keep most our fires small," she said, attributing that success to "aggressive initial attacks" and sufficient firefighting equipment, particularly air tankers. As the wildfire season progresses, and resources are stretched thinner, that could change.

"When we reach the middle of the summer, things might be different," Kern continued, but qualified that statement by pointing out that 89% of wildfires nationwide are from human-caused starts. "We absolutely have the ability to be the masters of our own fate and have the resources that we need to match the fire starts that we have it we can control our ignitions."

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.