In Eastern Oregon, lightning, not people, is the source of most wildfires
Noel Livingston and Joel McCraw ponder the coming fire season with not a small amount of dread.
In this sense the two share something in common with people across Oregon, and indeed across the West, whose task it is to deal with wildfires.
The combination of the drought afflicting much of the region, and fresh memories of the fires that destroyed sections of several towns and killed 11 people in western and southern Oregon in September 2020, is a troubling concern.
But at the cusp of another potentially fiery summer, Livingston and McCraw have a perspective that's notably different, in one key respect, from some of their counterparts.
Livingston and McCraw work on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon's northeast corner.
Livingston is the Wallowa-Whitman's fire staff officer, McCraw the fire management officer for the Whitman District in the southern half of the 2.3 million-acre forest.
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When they consider the threats they'll likely deal with over the next three months or so, Livingston and McCraw worry more about what's going to happen thousands of feet up in the atmosphere, where electrical storms sometimes brew on hot summer afternoons, than what will transpire on the ground.
And they have a strong statistical reason to expect trouble from above.
in the Wallowa-Whitman forest, over the past half-century, lightning — not careless or intentionally destructive people — has sparked nearly eight of every 10 blazes.
That's quite a different situation, Livingston said, than what prevails in national forests that are closer to metropolitan areas — Mount Hood, for instance, parts of which are less than an hour's drive from Portland, or the Willamette, a similar distance from both Salem and Eugene.
In those forests, the percentages are nearly reversed, Livingston said, with human-caused fires predominate.
This difference is reflected in the national forests' disparate strategies during fire season, Livingston said.
The Mount Hood and Willamette national forests have fire staff who spent much of their time patrolling, particularly in popular areas such as campgrounds, so as to be ready to douse human-caused blazes, he said.
On the Wallowa-Whitman forest, by contrast, those sorts of "prevention patrols" are what Livingston describes as a "collateral duty" for firefighters.
"We don't typically do that except in extreme conditions," Livingston said. "We don't have to do it in a normal year."
He concedes, though, that 2021 isn't likely to be a normal year.
At least not as that word was defined until 2020.
Livingston said the pandemic-driven trend of more people recreating outdoors in 2020, a phenomenon seen across the West, was noteworthy on the Wallowa-Whitman.
"Anytime we get more people in the woods, the risk goes up," Livingston said. "We're going to pay more attention to that."
Despite bigger crowds at campgrounds and other recreation sites on the Wallowa-Whitman in 2020 — and the expectation for similar scenes this summer — Livingston said he was "pleasantly surprised that we didn't get more human-caused fires than we did."
Indeed, the Wallowa-Whitman's total of 12 human-caused fires, which burned a total of just 23 acres, was less than half the yearly average of 30 fires amassed from 1970-2019.
Lightning fires also were rarer than usual, with 60 blazes blackening 12 acres.
The annual average is 105 lightning-sparked blazes.
"It was a fairly dry year, but we just didn't get the lightning," McCraw said.
It was the second consecutive tranquil fire season on the Wallowa-Whitman, even as major blazes were spreading across hundreds of thousands of acres elsewhere in the West.
Again, the relative scarcity of lightning storms was a key factor.
In 2019, the Wallowa-Whitman had 67 lightning fires, which burned 27 acres.
The past two summers illustrate what might seem, to a layperson, something of a misnomer.
It's not especially rare, Livingston said, that summers with extreme fire danger elsewhere actually turn out to be relatively quiet fire seasons on the Wallowa-Whitman.
"In really dry years we often don't get as much lightning," he said.
The situation is similar on other public land in the state's northeast corner, primarily sagebrush steppe for which the Bureau of Land Management is the chief firefighting agency.
On private and state land in Northeast Oregon, where the Oregon Department of Forestry handles much of the firefighting, lightning sparks 70% to 75% of fires on average, said Steve Meyer, wildland fire supervisor at the state agency's Baker City office.
"We've had summers when we're setting records for fire danger, but we don't have much of a fire season because we don't get the lightning," Meyer said.
Despite the prevalence of lightning-ignited blazes in this corner of the state, none of the three — Meyer, Livingston and McCraw — is sanguine about the potential for people to supply the spark.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Although lightning is famously fickle in where it strikes, Livingston said advances in meteorology have made it much more feasible to forecast thunderstorms with a fair degree of geographical accuracy, at least a few days, and even up to a week, in advance.
Those forecasts can't tell fire bosses where bolts will strike, and potentially ignite a fire, of course.
But Livingston said lightning detectors can pinpoint strikes, which at least gives fire crews — and the mountaintop fire lookouts, of which more than a dozen are still staffed each summer in northeast Oregon — a likely set of places to search for the telltale tendrils of smoke.
"It helps us get resources out into an area ahead of time, to focus on areas where we're most likely to have lightning fires," Meyer said.
Human-caused fires, by contrast, are inherently more frightening, officials said, simply because people can go almost anywhere.
And unlike with lightning, there are no sensors to show where a person carelessly tossed a cigarette or left a smoldering campfire or drove through a patch of desiccated grass, where hot mufflers and catalytic converters can ignite the tinder.
"Human activity is really a wild card," Livingston said.
"With human-caused fires you never know," Meyer said. "It can be anywhere."
The inherent unpredictability of human-caused fires — when they might happen, as well as where — is one reason the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry institute restrictions on campfires, the use of chainsaws and other activities when fire danger is high or extreme.
Livingston said that, despite the many factors that determine the severity of a fire season on a specific national forest, he's pretty confident that the 2021 season will be another damaging one.
"It's safe to say we're going to have a long, difficult season — it's just a matter of where," he said.
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