A lengthy stretch of sunny weather this spring may feel like a blessing after torrential downpours and flooding in April. But it could also result in a lengthy fire season.
The lack of rain for three weeks has made much of the Beaver State a tinderbox, said workers with the Northwest Oregon Interagency Fire Organization, which coordinates wildland firefighting responses on federal land in the region.
Residents should think about conditions as if it already were early July, which typically marks the end of Oregon’s rains, rather than May, said Eric Johnson, deputy fire staff with the Bureau of Land Management.
“We’re on the verge of getting into fire season in the next week or so,” Johnson said.
Conditions are so dry that Linn and Benton counties issued a temporary 4-day burning ban from Thursday through Sunday, and the BLM prohibited fireworks and target shooting with exploding targets and tracer rounds on its land across Oregon and Washington.
Weather predictions have the next 30 days significantly warmer and drier than normal, as well, increasing the chance of significant wildfires, Johnson said.
“All summers in Oregon are dry, but some summers are drier than others,” he added.
Johnson spoke to the media on Thursday at the Eugene Interagency Communications Center in Springfield. That location serves as a headquarters for the Northwest Oregon Interagency Fire Organization as it handles wildland blazes in the Willamette and Siuslaw national forests and BLM’s Northwest Oregon District.
The center is much like a traditional 9-1-1 dispatch center, and during the heart of the summer, there will be a flurry of phone calls, radio traffic and other activity as workers coordinate the responses of federal, state and local agencies. Reports of fires come in from public reporting, staff lookouts and automated cameras, including infrared satellite imagery.
Detailed maps of federal land show the locations of fires and resources dispatched to the blazes, such as engines, other equipment and firefighters. The center also directs logistical support, including meals and water, to fire crews out in the field.
On Thursday, a pin remained just northeast of Detroit Reservoir. The previous morning, a car fire ended up scorching about 7.5 acres, and crews remained on the scene 24 hours later, said Shalyn Whitson, lead initial dispatcher at the Eugene Interagency Communications Center.
Whitson is in her 10th season with the center, and she’s also worked as a wildland firefighter.
“It seems drier than previous years, but the weather could change back,” she said.
Thankfully, that’s in the forecast.
The National Weather Service has predicted a chance of showers for the mid-Willamette Valley in the middle of next week, and if there is significant rainfall, that could “reset” forest fuels, Johnson said.
“If we could get a week of rain, that would really help our situation,” he said.
If heavy rains don’t materialize, however, Western Oregon’s fire season could be five months long this year, rather than three months long.
Thursday’s presentation unintentionally coincided with a red flag warning issued by the National Weather Service for Thursday in the Willamette Valley, cautioning that fires could spread easily due to low humidity and winds. Another red flag warning was issued for Friday.
The Northwest Oregon Interagency Fire Organization has already coordinated responses to about 10 multi-acre fires since the start of May, none of them related to lightning strikes. “All of our fires are being caused by humans so far,” Johnson said.
In the summer of 2018, almost all of the forest fires in Oregon were caused by human activity, as well, not lightning, officials said.
According to the state of Oregon, Oregonians caused 1,330 wildfires that consumed more than 329,000 acres last summer. Wildfires have increased in intensity and severity in the past decade, according to the state.
On average, people cause 87 percent of wildfires in the nation each year.
Johnson urged people to be aware of burn restrictions and use caution when working or enjoying activities outside. A rural resident maintaining their acreage could spark a blaze, for example. One of the most common ways that wildfires start is an ember from a campfire.
Jennifer Velez, BLM spokeswoman, said that large fires that result have a huge impact on the Willamette Valley and elsewhere in Oregon as smoke spreads and causes respiratory problems.
Winter storms also downed trees south of the Eugene area, and that has made access difficult on forest roads and provided even more fuel for any fires that occur.