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Rain fuels fire threat

Spring’s cool, wet weather delays a fire season that could have started as early as April

Photo by Adam Lapierre

An Oregon Department of Forestry firefighter battles the Herman Creek Fire of 2003. The fire cut power to Cascade Locks for 18 hours and cost at least $600,000 to put out.

By CHRISTIAN KNIGHT

News editor

July 9, 2005

June's above-average rainfall, fire forecasters say, has sprouted a thicker-than-normal layer of grass, which the summer heat will inevitably dry out and turn into what these forecasters call "fine fuels."

This green grass will, given the opportunity, act more like crumpled newspaper in a wood stove, spreading the inferno to logs bigger than eight inches in diameter - called heavy fuels - which the near-record low snowpack and rainfall barely penetrated this year.

This scenario could help accelerate a flame into a forest fire throughout many parts of a parched region that, according to the Palmer Drought and Crop Moisture Data for June 18, is currently in the throes of "extreme drought."

"The weather during fire season is the single most influential factor," said Rod Nichols, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry. "We always have to remind the public that even though it has rained for a few weeks, it doesn't mean it (rain) couldn't turn around to increase the threat of fire danger."

A report issued by Predictive Services of the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center says the most likely fire scenario for the area is a late but above average fire season.

"Moderate to severe drought will continue …" the report states. "Large August timber fires are possible in higher elevations of the Cascade and Blue Mountains. In this scenario … northern Oregon would experience an above average, but relatively short fire season."

Fire managers at the Oregon Department of Forestry estimate the meager snowpack and rain that followed managed to saturate 1,000-hour fuel logs in the Middle Mountain area by 16 percent, when the historic low for this time of year is 15.8 percent.

The forestry department recorded 23 percent saturation in 1,000-hour fuels near the Blue Ridge to the south.

"Generally the peak a log can hold after natural conditions is usually about 40 to 50 percent," said Nick Yonker, a meteorologist at the department of forestry. "If you get down to 13 percent and below you are into higher fire season or a higher potential for danger."

As a result of this and the limited supply of water, the Mid-Columbia Fire Prevention Cooperative announced a ban on Thursday all open debris burning on state forestry protected lands throughout north central Oregon.

The ban, which will become effective July 10, discredits all permits for open burn until the state officials lift the ban.

The cool and rainy June weather did, however, delay the start of the fire season, which fire forecasters had expected would begin in the Mid-Columbia area as early as April. Instead, June's abundant rain delayed the start of Central Oregon's fire season by 11 days. Last year it began on June 19. This year it began July 1.

The symptoms of this year's drought have already surfaced, albeit subtly.

Rod Altig, fire manager at the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, can count eight small wildfires that have burned one acre or less throughout the Scenic Area since January. A hiker caused a Presidents Day weekend fire atop Dog Mountain by abandoning a warming fire. Others have burned near Mosier, the Klickitat River, Wishram, Catherine Creek and Wind Mountain.

"Those numbers are above normal for this time of year," said Mike Ferris, spokesman for the Scenic Area.

Normally by this time of year, Scenic Area fire crews have assisted on two to three wildfires.

Fires can, of course, start for any reason: cigarettes, chainsaw sparks, backyard barrel burning or dry lightning.

Railroads account for a bulk of the infernos.

"Ninety percent of forest fires are human caused," Ferris said. "If it is proved that you caused the fire, you could end up paying $1 million for it. You are responsible and you can be held financially liable."

The Herman Creek Fire from two years ago shut Interstate 84 down for two days, blocked off the railroad for 30 hours and cut power to Cascade Locks for 18 hours. It cost more than $600,000 to put it out.

Whether or not the lit ash off a cigarette or a spark from the chainsaw sets a few patches of brush on fire or wipes out an entire forest depends almost entirely upon one wild element:

"Any ignition source - especially in the Gorge - can result in a catastrophic fire because of the wind," Ferris said. "It doesn't matter if it's a car on fire or a discarded cigarette. The most immediate influence is the wind."

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