Cool summers and fire danger

By Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer July 31, 2010 05:00 am

On Thursday, during the course of six hours, the newsroom police scanner burst out with four reports of possible wildfires in Curry County. 

Each time, Coos Forest Protective Association jumped into action, immediately dispatching one or two people in scout vehicles, at least one engine, a water tender and a bulldozer, those stationed closest to the fire’s location.

I’m happy to say that all four reports, including one of smoke up the Chetco River and another near Langlois, turned out to be false alarms.

Within 20 minutes of each report, a dozen or so members of the Coos Forest Protective patrol were driving over hill and dale on dirt roads to confirm the fires. Other fire departments in Curry and Coos County were on alert, waiting to join if needed.

With an increase in thunderstorm activity combined with the tinder-dry conditions in the nearby wilderness, I find comfort in knowing firefighters stand ready to jump at the first sign of smoke.

For those living along the coast, which is most of us, it’s hard to understand how tenuous the fire danger is in Curry County. We awake most mornings to a heavy morning mist and shiver the rest of the day through one of the coolest summers in a decade (see story on Page x).

But a short drive up the Chetco, Rogue or Winchuck rivers tells another story. While temperatures on the coast and inland have remained relatively cool, there has been little precipitation.

A look at the statistics collected by the Curry Coastal Pilot’s weather station (in downtown Brookings) shows 50 straight days without rain as of Friday. The last measureable rain was about 1 inch between June 8 and June 10. After that, nada. And the forecast for next week calls for continued cool temperatures and no precipitation.

The cooler-than-normal summer and threat of wildfires reminds me of the summer of 2002 when cool summer temperatures preceded the Biscuit Fire, which charred nearly 500,000 acres nearby Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The fire, one of Oregon’s largest in recorded history, cast a blanket of smoke over the coast for nearly two months, turning the sun blood red and painting the landscape an unnatural orange.

I’m well acquainted with wildfires, having covered their devastation here and in Southern California over the last 20 years. I find wildfires fascinating and horrifying at the same time.

During my reporting years in Southern California, I stood beside homeowners as they watered rooftops in vain against 60-foot-tall walls of flames. I interviewed a 78-year-old widow as we searched the charred remains of her trailer for family heirlooms. I’ve witnessed veteran firefighters, among the bravest people in the world, look in awe at, and even flee from, the terrifying and unpredictable nature of wildfires.

Today, those images haunt my thoughts each time I hear the police scanner crackle with a report of a possible wildfire. I should just turn the scanner off. What I don’t know won’t hurt me. Right?

But I can’t turn it off. It’s my job to stay abreast of important community events and get the word out, just like it’s the job of our local firefighters to launch into action at the mere wisp of possible smoke.

Here’s to warmer days and a summer of false alarms.