Fire threat on the horizon

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer March 18, 2014 08:39 pm

 

Trees in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness east of Brookings burn during the 2002 Biscuit Fire.

Don’t let the recent rain fool you.

Despite sometimes heavy rainfall over the past several weeks, Oregon’s drought is not over, nor have the odds of extreme fire danger in the forests decreased, fire officials throughout the state are warning.

It’s still a bit early to declare the forests here a tinderbox, but based on predictive models from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, dry conditions in Southern California are likely to continue and spread northward to the Oregon border throughout the spring and summer.

Southern California battled blazes it normally doesn’t see in the winter months this year, and the situation isn’t expected to improve any time soon.

“We’re all kind of hoping not to have another one, but here we are,” said Oregon Department of Forestry information officer Rod Nichols. “We’re probably heading into summer with similar conditions (as last year) if things don’t change.”

Curry County has received 6.28 inches of rain this year, compared to an almost completely dry first quarter of 2013. Historically, the area should have received 29.5 inches of rain by this time of year; on average Brookings gets 86.3 inches of rain a year.

Meager — almost nonexistent — snowfall to the east this winter will result in lower water runoffs.

Mt. Ashland, whose snowfall eventually drains to the Rogue River, called it quits March 14, making it the first time in its 50 years that it failed to open for a ski season.

The Chetco River, which gets its water from snowmelt and rain in the Coast Range, was running at 2,460 cubic feet per second Monday — nowhere near the low of 568 in 2005, nor the high of 20,100 cfs in 1993.

Nichols is more concerned about lightning — another weather element difficult to predict.

“The big wild card is always lightning,” he said. “We’ve had years where we’re fairly dry going into summer and not had bad lightning. Last year, though, Southwestern Oregon got hammered in late July with major lightning with no precipitation.”

That resulted in three major fires east and northeast of Curry County: the Big Windy Fire that burned 24,200 acres, the Douglas Fire Complex 7 miles north of Glendale that burned almost 50,000 and the Labrador Fire 25 miles south of Grants Pass that burned about 2,000 acres. Numerous other small fires were spotted and extinguished.

But dry duff on the forest floor, what remains of the Biscuit Fire from 2002, hot weather, high winds and no precipitation spelled fire danger last year.

“We wouldn’t have had as bad a fire season if we hadn’t had such bad conditions going in,” Nichols said. “When fires started, they spread very rapidly. The fire behavior was violent; it was hard for firefighters to get control.”

Such conditions weren’t restricted to Southern Oregon, either, resulting in federal fire officials conducting triage to properly allocate resources — machine and people — to numerous locations throughout the nation.

The same could occur again this year, as many parts of the United States are, in mid-March, under critical fire watch. They include Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, New Mexico and Southern California.

California’s drought, said to be the worst in recorded history, is predicted to continue and progress north to the Oregon coast and mountainous regions east of Curry County, the NIFC is reporting.

The agency is predicting typical seasonal conditions from May through June.

“There will be a significant seasonal precipitation deficit by this time, likely keeping most of the area in severe to extreme drought,” the website reads. “Snowpack will continue below normal, and areas below 7,000 feet are likely to be snow-free, exposing fuels weeks, if not months, earlier than usual. Upper slopes could become prone to lightning ignitions by June.”

The mountains east of Curry County have received 70 percent of normal precipitation for the year, according to the SNOTEL sites in the area that measure rain and snowfall. 

“Forecasting dry lightning is notoriously difficult, and we can’t really predict the intensity of the 2014 fire season based solely on dry conditions,” Nichols said. “If dry lightning is not widespread, fire agencies are able to suppress the resulting fires and limit the acreage burned. It’s when multiple strikes start numerous fires at one time that the agencies can be temporarily overwhelmed, as in 2013.”