Fire season sets records in northeast Oregon

Fire season sets records in northeast Oregon

25 November 2015

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USA–  The snow is flying, bringing a merciful end to a painful wildfire season in Eastern Oregon.

Canyon Creek. Windy Ridge. Grizzly Bear.

Three massive wildfire complexes burned 296,807 acres across Eastern Oregon in 2015, fueled by intense heat and drought that set new records for large fire growth.

And, now that the snow has started to fly over the Blue Mountains, the Oregon Department of Forestry says it will spend the winter figuring out how to prepare for what could be the new normal.

“We had 100,000-acre fires here in northeast Oregon, and that’s not typical,” said Joe Hessel, unit forester for ODF in La Grande and Baker City. “There’s a good chance the trends will be toward more active and longer fire seasons.”

The 2015 Fire Program Review Committee will meet Dec. 1 in Salem to review those trends and identify key issues from the last fire season, which lasted 134 days in the Northeast Oregon District — about three weeks longer than average.

The review committee consists of ODF staff, private landowners, members of other land management agencies and several lawmakers, including state Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena.

Hessel spent the summer filling in for John Buckman as acting district forester in northeast Oregon, which protects 1.9 million acres in Umatilla, Union, Wallowa and Baker counties, as well as smaller portions of Malheur, Grant and Morrow counties.

Fire season began June 16 in the district, and by August the conditions had turned dire. An incendiary cocktail of high temperatures, low rainfall and early snowmelt left fuels ready to burn at an unprecedented rate, Hessel said.

Foresters use several formulas to measure short- and long-term fire conditions. The energy release component, or ERC, takes weather-related factors to determine how much energy could be released from dried out fire fuels. Hessel said the ERC set new highs for 16 days in late June and July.

“That really indicated the earlier-than-normal burning conditions,” Hessel said.

Another figure, known as the Burning Index, factors in things like wind speed and moisture to determine how quickly a large fire might grow and spread. The index reached new highs for a couple of days in southern Baker County, Hessel said.

One day in particular that sticks out in Hessel’s mind is Aug. 14, when the Cornet-Windy Ridge, Canyon Creek and Grizzly Bear complexes all made big runs that kept firefighters scrambling.

“It was real hard to get resources to some of the fires, because there was so much fire on the landscape,” he said. “It made for real tough firefighting through late August.”

On the Malheur National Forest, the Canyon Creek Complex torched 110,261 acres and destroyed more than 40 homes. The Cornet-Windy Ridge fire on ODF land reached 103,887 acres, and the Grizzly Bear Complex topped 80,000 acres in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness on the Umatilla National Forest, destroying another five homes near Troy.

Brian Goff, fire staff officer on the Umatilla National Forest, said the forest alone had 99 total fires that ripped through 83,385 acres — both higher than the 10-year average.

With so much fire in Oregon and Washington, the Pacific Northwest became one of three regions to enter Preparedness Level 5 and for a time was the nation’s top priority for firefighting resources. But with the number of blazes, Goff said crews were stretched thinner than they’re used to seeing.

“It was really common to have half the firefighters you’d normally have,” Goff said. “Instead of being able to put the fire out in a short period of time, we had to focus on a particular flank of fire that was threatening values.”

Agencies made the most of their partnerships to help alleviate some of that stress. According to ODF, incident management teams were deployed eight times to support large fires across the state, bringing together federal, state and local partners.

The Oregon National Guard sent in 375 soldiers, while the Oregon Department of Corrections provided 330 inmates to help fight fires. Personnel, equipment and aircraft converged into Oregon from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, 27 states and two Canadian provinces.

Ron Graham, deputy chief of the ODF Fire Protection Division, said the fire season statewide was not the most severe he’s ever seen. The total cost for firefighting was about $29.5 million, which pales in comparison to the $74.5 million spent in 2013.

But the season was notable for being the third consecutive severe fire season, and one that put their system of coordinated response to the test.

“There was a lot of activity happening in multiple parts of the country,” Graham said. “Basically it’s a very high competition for resources.”

Given that reality of the past three years, Graham said the Fire Program Review Committee will be looking at whether they’ll need to make changes to adapt to the conditions. Funding is one major piece of the puzzle, as is accelerating the pace of forest restoration and management.

Hessel said it will be a challenge for the group to look ahead into the future, and a lot is riding on them to get it right.

“Without question, this was a record-setting season for the district in terms of acres burned,” Hessel said.

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