After last year's devastating wildfires, fire agencies are being cautious while continuing to educate the public.

COURTESY PHOTO: FOREST GROVE FIRE & RESCUE - An out-of-control burn pile west of Banks on Northwest Strohmeyer Road required Forest Grove Fire & Rescue to respond Tuesday, April 13.

With unseasonably high temperatures and low moisture, the Washington County Fire Defense Board enacted Wednesday a temporary high-fire danger outdoor burn ban across Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue's entire jurisdiction, as well as those of fire agencies in Banks, Gaston, Forest Grove, Cornelius and Hillsboro.

Firefighters from multiple agencies responded to about a dozen brush fires in Washington County and northeast Yamhill County just on Tuesday, April 13, said Matt Johnston, spokesperson for Forest Grove Fire & Rescue.

Of those, three were caused by high wind blowing into burn piles that became out of control, Johnston said.

On Thursday morning, April 15, the National Weather Service issued a special weather statement for much of the western part of Oregon describing unseasonably dry conditions, rising temperatures and high winds.

The burn ban is among the earliest Cassandra Ulven, public affairs chief for TVF&R, has ever seen in her 23-year career.

The prevailing sense among all the fire chiefs in the region was that people looking to burn debris need to "take a pause," Ulvan said, adding that doing so would "reduce the probability that we're going to have any of those brush piles become wildfires."

With relatively low amounts of forested land compared to other Oregon counties, Washington County was spared the worst impacts of the most devastating wildfire season in the state's history last year.

But last September's fires — a result of a record-breaking wind storm that blew powerlines into dry vegetation across the state — included the Powerline Fire and the Bald Peak-Chehalem Mountain Fire in Washington and Yamhill counties, which came dangerously close to burning people's homes, Ulven said.

"We've long felt in this part of Oregon that we were immune from these major wildfire events," Ulven said, referring to the Portland metro area.

Research showing that climate change will bring hotter, drier, late springs and summers could change that perception, she said.

TVF&R is still in the process of learning from last year about how to fight fires in the "wildland-urban interface," where agricultural or forest lands meet populated areas, Ulven said.

The agency has been working on improving staffing to better prepare for long-lasting fires and fire danger periods, such as what Oregon experienced last September, she said.

"We'll be doing more education," Ulven added.

Agencies across the state have been working to educate landowners about how to create fire defensible space by clearing vegetation and other flammable materials at multiple distances from structures.

In the Tillamook State Forest — Washington County's only heavily forested area — the Forest Grove District of the Oregon Department of Forestry burned slash piles and thinned vegetation in multiple areas last fall as part of normal forest management practices, said spokesperson Jason Cox in an email.

The agency is also planning to thin areas ahead of timber cuts this summer and working with timberland owners to best dispose of woody materials following logging operations, Cox said.

So far this year, 70 fires have burned 402 acres on ODF-protected land, according to Columbia River Fire & Rescue, which urged caution Thursday morning for residents of the swath of Columbia County it serves, advising that they delay burning until later in the year.

CRF&R and other fire districts in Columbia County followed suit Thursday afternoon by issuing a burn ban notice until Sunday, April 18.

Forty of those fires on ODF lands were reportedly caused by out-of-control burn piles, accounting for more than a third of the acres burned.

Some landowners still have large amounts of debris on their properties from an ice storm in February that downed trees and branches across northwestern Oregon.

The early fire danger conditions will prevent people from continuing to get rid of that vegetation by burning it, leaving additional risk for hotter months.

Johnston says it's already too late for people to safely burn debris.

A lot of rural landowners are elderly and physically can't create what firefighters refer to as "defensible space" on their properties, Johnston said, and it's costly to hire professionals to do it. That creates additional complications for fire agencies eyeing another potentially dangerous fire season this year.

Johnston said he hopes additional state or federal grants become available for landowners without the ability or resources to pay for debris removal.

After last year, wildfire legislation is a high priority for Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon lawmakers, along with legislation addressing the persistent coronavirus pandemic.

One bill, Senate Bill 762, directs the state's Legislative Policy and Research Office to study strategies to promote wildfire response and recovery.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note a burn ban in Columbia County announced Thursday afternoon, April 15.

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