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Weather in the summer and fall is a bigger predictor of the fire season, expert says.

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - The Dodge Community Church was one casualty of this summer's Riverside Fire near Estacada.This year's annual Winter Weather Forecast Conference may have raised hopes among those still reeling from last summer's severe wildfires. Most of the forecasters who spoke at the Oct. 24 event sponsored by the Oregon chapter of the American Meteorological Society predicted a much wetter winter than the past few years, with more rain and a deeper snowpack — which is already nearly back to normal levels.

That won't guarantee fewer or milder forest fires in 2021, however. According to John Saltenberger, one of the most experienced meteorologists in the region, the weather during fire season is more important that the weather before it. If the summer and fall are hot and dry enough, the previous winter and spring won't make much difference, especially with climate change raising average temperatures.

"I've been in the fire weather business for 35 years now," said Saltenberger, who works for the Predictive Services Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "I'm not a climate analyst or fire ecologist but I've never yet see any consistent relationships studied between the precipitation of a preceding winter and the severity of the fire season that follows in the Pacific Northwest."

Unfortunately, that leaves it to elected officials, government agencies, lumber companies and environmentalists to work out better forest management practices. Agreement has been elusive so far. Congress and Oregon Legislature are expected to take up the issue again in 2021.

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