Summer’s worst fires expected to hit elsewhere

Mild fire season is forecast for Central Oregon, but experts caution that factors could change

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: May 08. 2007 8:00AM PST

Central Oregon should be in for a relatively mild forest fire season this summer compared with the rest of the West.

Two seasonal outlook reports released last week predict a normal fire season for most of Oregon, other than the Blue Mountains in the northeastern part of the state, but an elevated risk of fire in areas including the Southwest and the Great Basin.

The prediction of an average year in Central Oregon follows a somewhat active season in 2006 and fewer fires than usual in 2005 and 2004.

The most recent bad season was 2003, when the B & B Complex Fire burned more than 90,000 acres.

Officials use the predictions in part to gear up for the summer and decide where to allocate resources, although experts said some factors could change between now and the usual start of fire season in June.

“Weather is huge, and a lot of time we watch fire season unfold,” said Ken Frederick, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center. “Predictions are one thing, but what’s really going on is another.”

Across the Northwest

The National Wildland Fire Outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, Idaho, shows an above normal potential for significant fires in the northeastern corner of Oregon, southeast Washington and all of central Idaho.

Frederick said the snowpack in the central Cascades is from 67 percent to 97 percent of the normal level. Snowpack is one factor experts consider when predicting what the future fire season will be like.

“Snowpack is good in some ways and bad in others,” Frederick said. “If it melts off quickly, it

doesn’t buy you a whole lot, but if there is a decent snowpack and it melts off at a normal rate, the heavier fuels on the ground — which would be logs, tree branches, stumps and so forth — they have soaked up a lot of water.”

Heading east from Bend, the snowpack figures are worse, with the Prineville area at between 37 percent and 49 percent of normal, Frederick said.

But Oregon’s outlook is good compared with many other parts of the country. Frederick pointed to the Southeast and Southwest as particularly vulnerable this year. In total, parts of 18 states have an above normal risk of fire.

“Last year we had more areas that we were calling for a below normal or normal (risk),” he said. “This year we have a big chunk of the U.S. Southeast, including all of Florida, a little more than 50 percent of Georgia and significant portions of South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia having an above normal outlook.”

This year, only one section of the country — an area encompassing small parts of northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado and the western Oklahoma panhandle — are forecast as having below normal fire potential. The Great Plains, Midwest and Northeast all show a normal fire outlook. The Fire Center will continue to monitor conditions and release monthly updates throughout fire season.

A second report, from Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service, shows similar results. Ron Neilson, a professor at OSU and ecologist with the Forest Service, said that in Oregon the area with an elevated risk of significant fires is “along that Columbia (River) to Blue Mountains corridor.”

Neilson said the outlook takes into account five different climate models that predict weather patterns for the next several months. If all five models predict fires in a particular area, then it is rated as being high risk. In Bend, only one of the climate models predicted a fire for the upcoming season, Neilson said.

“Bend only pops up in one of the models, and it shows a moderate-sized fire (of 1,000 to 10,000 acres) in that region,” he said.

Fire factors

Neilson said that a swing between the El Niño and La Niña weather systems is contributing to dry weather and fuel buildup in the West, which leads to wildfires. Under El Niño, the Southwest tends to get more rain and the Northwest is drier, which leads to vegetation growth in the Southwest. If the weather system then switches toward La Niña, the Southwest will have less rain and more risk of fire.

“It’s dry in a lot of areas and we’ve also got a lot of fuel built up in the West,” he said. “Much of it comes down to regional drought, and we’re kind of whipping back and forth between a mild El Niño and a mild La Niña.”

Frederick said that, although a wet spring can help the current fire season, it can also cause problems in later years. He added that Oregon is “still feeling the effects of the tremendous grass crop of 2005,” which was a result of rain in the spring and summer that year.

“If we get some good rains here in the spring and early summer, that will flush a lot of the live fuels with some moisture and that helps,” he said. “If there’s a good grass crop that’s a blessing and a curse — it delays fire season, but eventually we are going to pay the piper.”

The uses of the outlook

While the predictions can’t be perfect, Neilson said the outlook from OSU and the Forest Service has been fairly accurate for the last few years. Frederick added that they point out “generalities and potentials” and can help agencies think now about where to allocate resources “before we’re in a crisis mode.”

“The decision makers like to have that kind of information because they have to make decisions about where are we going to place air tankers, for example, (and) should we move resources from one part of the country to another anticipating fire problems,” Frederick said. “We want to succeed in initial attack during the active part of fire season because we want to keep the fires small.”

Neilson said that the idea behind the OSU and Forest Service report is also to provide planning assistance to firefighting agencies.

“That’s what we’re putting it out there for, but we do label these as experimental forecasts — kind of use at your own risk,” he said. “The idea is to help them plan ahead as to where they may need to put resources, people and equipment.”

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