Summer and wildfires
Summer is approaching quickly – temperatures are increasing, and vegetation is drying out. Although we're still getting rain, it's now coming with lightning, one of the biggest causes of wildfire here in Central Oregon. Last year we had a lot of rain and fewer wildfires than normal. That doesn't mean we can become complacent this year.
Looking back at May, most of the Pacific Northwest was warmer than usual, with temps rising on some days to 30 percent above normal. At the same time, our rainfall was about normal to a little less than normal. Although we had fairly good snow this past winter, the warm May days caused a lot of it to melt, and now much of Oregon is sitting at less than 50 percent of normal for snowpack. I'm getting this information from the Northwest Coordination Center in Portland, where they provide an overview of what we can expect over the next three months. You can check it out yourself by going to their webpage at https://gacc.nifc.gov/nwcc/index.aspx and clicking on the link for "outlooks."
The drought monitor shows increasing drought conditions throughout most of the west, with Oregon having many areas that currently range from abnormally dry to moderate drought. A few small spots are already reaching the level of extreme drought. Without a lot of change in the upcoming forecast, we expect much of the state to be in a drought or in an area where drought is likely.
So, what does that mean for us? Fortunately, June is predicted to have normal rainfall, which should push off large fire growth for a little while. 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.
Locally, we were about five degrees above average for the month of May and significantly drier, so that means our fuels – the grass, brush, and trees – are well on their way to drying out. Some of our lightest grasses are already dry, and we're already had a 900-acre wildfire along the John Day River. 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.
We've already had about 75 wildfires in Central Oregon this year, and fortunately, they've 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. July, August and September are predicted to have above normal fire potential in much of Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho and California.
Potential means the ability of a fire to start and spread. Our wildfires are typically about 40 percent human- and 60 percent lightning-caused. We get the thunderstorms here in Central Oregon because of the North American Monsoon storms in Arizona and New Mexico. As the desert southwest heats up, moist air is drawn in from the ocean creating a ridge of high pressure that heads north during the summer months. The southwest gets heavy rain from this system, and we get thunderstorms – some putting down thousands of lightning strikes in only a few hours.
Knowing that we will get fires from lighting, we take measures to try and minimize the human-caused starts. On June 1 of each year, we put in fire restrictions on the Lower Deschutes River, and much of the White, Crooked and John Day Rivers. In the river canyons we have limited access, grassy fuels that dry out quickly, windy conditions and steep slopes. Combine that with a high number of people recreating on or near the water and you have the potential for a fire to start and spread very quickly. On a statewide level, the BLM prohibits the use of fireworks and exploding targets on public lands every year from early May to the end of October.
I know many of you have spent a lot of time at home these past few months and you're eager to get out and recreate on public lands. Taking a few simple precautions will allow you to have a safe and fun vacation. Know before you go – find out if campfires are allowed wherever you plan to stay. If you can have one, make sure it's dead out and cold to the touch whenever someone isn't there to watch it. If you can't have a campfire, you'll have to plan ahead and bring along a gas or propane stove to do your cooking.
Other precautions you can take to avoid accidentally starting a wildfire include making sure cigarettes are disposed of properly, securing your trailer chains so they don't drag and spark, and avoiding parking over dry grass or brush. On an average year we have about 450 wildfires in Central Oregon, which means about 180 human-caused fires. Asking our public lands user each year to take extra care when they're out recreating helps us reduce these fires, and every human-caused wildfire we prevent, means more resources and firefighters to tackle the lightning starts we know we'll have.
Jeff Kitchens is the acting manager of the Prineville BLM District. He can be reached at 541-416-6700.
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