PENDLETON — Due to recent wildfire starts across the region, Monday is the official start of fire season for Northeast Oregon.
Fire managers and weather forecasters look for an average fire season for the Blue Mountains, but dry conditions are attracting concern for large wildfires between the Cascades and the Oregon Coast.
Dan Slagle, forecaster at the National Weather Service in Pendleton, said there is no strong signal that the summer weather patterns would be unusual, but July and August are predicted to be warm.
“We are trending toward cooler and drier weather the next one to two weeks, but longer trends favor warmer than normal conditions,” he said.
Lightning storms this past week started fires in Central Oregon, but Slagle said the storms didn’t come with much wind so the fires were extinguished while they were still small.
Mid-elevation snowpack stayed around a couple weeks longer than usual, according to Brett Thomas, fire staff officer for the Umatilla National Forest, and the latter part of May had cooler temperatures and a lot of rain. He said he expects an average fire year, as well.
“It could change if June turns off, but it is supposed to mellow out to 70s and 80s for the rest of the month,” he said.
According to Jamie Knight, who handles public affairs out of Oregon Department of Forestry’s La Grande office, dryness and warming temperatures at lower elevations warrant declaring fire season.
“Typically we go into fire season any time between the middle of June and the first part of July,” she said.
The state has kept records of the beginning of fire season dates since 1977, when fire season started May 1, Knight said. In recent years, the date has fluctuated — in 2014, the official start was June 11, while last year a cool, wet spring put it off until June 28.
Restrictions in effect
Starting Monday, fire prevention restrictions on landowners and the public go into effect as do regulations on industrial logging and forest management activities on 2 million acres of private, state, county, municipal and tribal lands within the Northeast Oregon Forest Protection District.
During fire season permits are required for burn barrels, and for all open burning, except campfires, on all private forest and rangelands. Logging and road building operators need to have fire tools, water supply and watchman service when those operations are occurring on lands protected by the state.
Knight advised that people who burn slash piles in the winter or spring should check to make sure they are completely out — sometimes fires can smolder for weeks or months and dry conditions and wind can whip them up to an uncontrolled burn.
“By going into fire season we are trying to reduce the number of human starts,” Knight said.
As seasonally employed firefighters are starting their training, a few state and federal fire professionals have been dispatched to Arizona and Alberta, Canada, to help with early season blazes.
“We exchange resources — when it’s hot and dry before the monsoons, we send people to Arizona, and in the late summer, they send folks up here during our critical time,” Knight said.
Bringing in resources
The state employs about 50 seasonal firefighters across Northeast Oregon, while the Umatilla National Forest brings on nearly 100, including staffing six lookout towers. The agency crews, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management, are all coordinated out of the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center in La Grande. Two single-engine air tankers, a fire detection plane and a variety of helicopters are also staged in La Grande throughout the summer for both local and regional use.
“We are only as good as our ability to work with our partners. It is truly one of our greatest assets,” Thomas said. “We work hard during the preseason time to foster those relationships year in and year out — and it’s proving very beneficial.”
Jeff Casey at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Pendleton is responsible for fire suppression on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He also lauded the partnership among the agencies.
“Oregon Department of Forestry has suppression responsibility on part of the reservation and we do a lot of training and management planning together,” Casey said.
This summer, Casey said he hired 11 seasonal firefighters, eight from the reservation. While his staff is small, it is part of a bigger, combined effort that even includes neighboring tribes.
One of the important relationships Casey said his agency and the tribe fosters is with the cultural resource team, which is trained to fight fire primarily to help with preservation of cultural resources.
“When there is a fire on the reservation, one of the first calls I make is to the tribe’s liaison, so they can include archeology technicians to help identify sites,” Casey said. “Often, they walk in front of a dozer to make sure it doesn’t go over anything.”
After the fire, Casey said, the techs help rehab the fire line and cover up any exposed artifacts.
At the county level
Most fires are kept small by the agencies’ combined efforts, but when they get big, Umatilla County Emergency Manager Tom Roberts helps set up the incident management center and coordinate evacuation efforts, if necessary.
Homes in the Tollgate area along Highway 204, the Mill Creek Drainage and around Ukiah and Meacham are at higher risk than much of the rest of the county because of their proximity to public land, but Roberts said having information logged into a computer program called Avenza helps firefighters locate values at risk on residential and recreational properties.
“Having those areas mapped out gives us an idea of special needs when we have fires,” Roberts said.
The county also has a mass notification system that sends out calls, texts or emails. Roberts encourages residents to go to the county website to register to receive messages during emergencies.
In times of evacuations, Roberts said the county’s search and rescue team, sheriff’s deputies and state police officers work together knocking on doors.
“It’s important for people to understand why we are there,” Roberts said.