REDMOND, OR -- Wildland firefighters have responded to more than 160 fires on Central Oregon public lands, so far this year; 75% of those were human caused, which forestry officials say is a much higher percentage than normal. And, the High Desert has not received the intermittent rainfall that typically provides a small amount of relief through the season.
Alex Robertson, with the Central Oregon Fire Management Service, briefed U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) in Redmond Thursday morning on how difficult and unusual this fire season has been, so far, partly due to the wet and incredibly snowy winter followed by excessive drying. According to Robertson, local weather stations haven't seen substantial rainfall in more than 100 days. He told Sen. Wyden at the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center (COID), "[We had] Really moist conditions - it turned off, got hot, no rain, grass dries out and now we're starting to get lightning." Wyden asked, "Would it be fair to say that, looking at coming up, sort of a perfect storm in terms of the fire season?" Robertson answered, "Absolutely."
Central Oregon fire crews are currently helping on large fires burning outside the local fire management area, including the Whitewater Fire near Mt. Jefferson and the Nena Springs Fire on the Warm Springs Reservation. Robertson tells KBND News the weather forecast could complicate an already busy fire season. "Our folks are out responding to fires, right now, trying to keep them small. The air tankers are flying on some going fires, right now; we can expect to see more of that here in the next couple of days. We're under a red flag warning for abundant amounts of lightning. What that means to us is it's weather, so who knows? But, there's a high potential to get a number of new starts here in Central Oregon." He adds, "Any new start we can expect to grow very quickly. That means using a lot of our aviation assets, our crews, our engines to be able to respond to those new starts. The complexity is, is that if we're getting lightning - lightning always produces fires for us - that will take resources to work on those fires. Any human-caused fires we get on top of that is just an extensive workload that, at some point, we run out of resources to be able to respond."
One dispatcher at COID tells KBND News the lingering haze makes it very difficult for fire lookouts to spot new starts until they get big.