'Above average' risk as fire season heats up
The forecast calls for flames.
May 2018 was the warmest ever on record in the lower 48 states, with large patches of the U.S. also reporting the driest ever conditions.
While wildfires occur every year and can actually prove beneficial to forests, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says there's an "unusual risk" of especially large and costly infernos this year.
"Fire danger across Oregon and Washington has been averaging well above average for the geographic area as a whole," said John Saltenberger, a fire weather program manager for the agency. "It's headed nowhere but up going into the summer."
In an air-conditioned conference room overlooking the clacking tracks of the Portland Streetcar, foresters and firefighters are convening for battle at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center located at 150 S.W. Harrison Street.
The Tribune sneaked a peek at operations while riding the coattails of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who toured the facility on Friday, July 6 in order to hear coordinators' concerns and tout his own wrangling of federal dollars toward fire prevention.
"I believe Oregon and the West are sitting on a powder keg of fire risk," Wyden warned. "Last season was a huge wake-up call when the skies above downtown Portland glowed orange at night."
Urban residents may not feel the heat until it disrupts travel plans — like the rager that closed Interstate 5 at the California border on July 5, leading to at least one fatality. But there have already been 370 fires in Oregon this year, with roughly 60 percent caused by humans and the remainder triggered by lightning.
The government has mustered 1,300 personnel to battle the blazes in both Oregon and Washington, and has already spent some $12 million on the effort, a tally that is sure to rise.
The good news is that firefighters have arrayed a runway's worth of firefighting planes and helicopters, including exclusive use of 13 "next gen" air tankers — and another 12 tankers that can be called up on contract from the U.S. Forest Service.
"We have a fairly extensive fleet. Certainly we've been trending upward from where we've been in the past," said Interagency center manger Dan O'Brien, highlighting that "it's not aircraft that puts these things out or brings them under control. It's the heartbeats of these people out on the ground."
That air power doesn't include the Boeing 747 SuperTanker that many citizens clamored for during the Eagle Creek Fire that scarred the Columbia River Gorge beginning in September of last year.
When asked, Sen. Wyden said he wasn't "going to micromanage" the type of tankers used, but was committed to making sure that Oregonians "have access to all of the tankers we need when we need them."
Fire managers don't seem to covet the low-flying tankers anyway. They'd rather have access to the satellite imagery that national defense and intelligence agencies use to scan the globe daily.
"Right now we're flying fixed-wing aircraft over ever single fire in the United States, every single night, (using) infrared," noted Fire, Fuels & Aviation Management director John Giller. "That high resolution stuff coming from space is where the future really is."
Fires by the numbers
The 2018 fire season has barely begun, but firefighters have already racked up plenty of time in the field. Here's what you need to know:
Number of total fires in Oregon, Washington: 936
Number of large fires: 21
Number of uncontained fires: 5
Number of lightning strikes recorded: 35,792
Total acreage burned in both states: 141,339
Acres burned by the Boxcar Fire in central Oregon: 100,207
Total cost for all firefighting: $12,386,957