Temperatures steadily inched their way into the mid-90s a few weeks ago, giving pause to wildland fire officials who are keeping an eye on the increasingly dry situations in the forest.
There had been little rain in the air until this past week, and summer heat is on its way.
Conditions in the forest are more like what fire officials would see a month from now, and fire officials are taking heed.
According to Coos Forest Protective Association fire prevention specialist John Flanigan, there have been 14 fires in the southwest corner of the state so far this season, the largest burning up 200 acres in Douglas County.
Most are related to debris piles burned last fall and left to smolder, in hopes of smothering, over the winter. But this past winter was too mild to completely extinguish the piles, and some started back up again.
“We’ve had half the rain since the first of the year,” Flanigan said. “It’s setting up where it could be an early and difficult fire season. But we don’t ever know until it actually happens. We need to start being prepared.”
Monty Edwards, the assistant fire manager with the U.S. Forest Service Gold Beach and Powers Ranger Districts, said moisture is 75 percent of average in the southwest corner of Oregon.
Water was flowing at 400 cfs in the Chetco River the day before the rains hit. It jumped to 2,200 cubic feet per second at its highest May 28. The mean for that day, based on 43 years of record-taking, is 876 cfs.
But even the smallest amount of rain can drive people to complacency.
“There’s lots of greenery, it’s lush,” Edwards said. “But the potential for fire this landscape can actually carry is pretty shocking. That’d be my only concern.”
Biscuit Part II?
Despite talk among county commissioners that the woods are setting up to burn like the Biscuit Fire did more than a decade ago, fire officials say we’re not there – yet.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Flanigan said. “Every year, we have times of the year where conditions are very bad. This year might be a tough year.”
“A fire scar takes a while to recover,” he said. “But after the Biscuit Fire ... there are manzanita that’s 8 feet high. There’s brush encroachment in places that was heavily treed. There were big landscape changes from that fire.”
Water levels aren’t helping much yet, either.
“Looking at our rivers, these are conditions we see more like in July,” Edwards said. “It’s pretty dry for this time of year. We’re not into summer yet, but everyone’s awareness is being raised. We’re wired for the season.”
Dry fuels, water and wind are critical to the outcome of a fire scenario.
“In the next five years, we could have another significant fire in there,” Flanigan said. “There’s a lot of brush; it wouldn’t be an unlikely thing to see happen. There’s an awful lot of fuel reduction that needs to be done.”
One advantage southwestern Oregon has over many parts of the United States is that it hasn’t been under severe drought situations for years on end.
“Curry County is faring better than even other areas of the state, notably the eastern end,” said Rod Nichols, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Flanigan urges those who burned piles last fall to double-check them to ensure they extinguished over the winter, and those who plan to burn piles to use caution.
“Douglas (County) went this week; we might not be too far from our fire season, either,” Flanigan said. “But we’re like weather predictors. We’re a lot better historians than we are predictors.