Dry conditions return, along with wildfire threats

SNOW WATER MAP shows the Hood, Sandy, and Lower Deschutes region at 54 percent of median levels from 1981-2010. However, overall winter snowpack was above 100 percent. This report was released Monday by the USDA and NRCS climate center in Portland.

Graphic courtesy of USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service
SNOW WATER MAP shows the Hood, Sandy, and Lower Deschutes region at 54 percent of median levels from 1981-2010. However, overall winter snowpack was above 100 percent. This report was released Monday by the USDA and NRCS climate center in Portland.

A hot and dry April punctured hopes that winter’s generous snowpack would hold out enough to leave conditions wetter than usual. Reports say May’s outlook is still somewhat dry.

On Tuesday, snow water equivalent on Mount Hood was recorded at 37.5 inches at 5,400 elevation, at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) test site. That’s less than two-thirds of average: 62 inches. The U.S. National Weather Service in Portland reported this April was the warmest weather for the city on record since the agency started keeping tabs in 1940.


May is National Wildfire Awareness Month, and local fire officials are helping the public with tips to stay “firewise” with the

Ready, Set, Go! Program.

Ready — Be ready, be firewise. Take personal responsibility and prepare long before the threat of a wildland fire so your home is ready in case of a fire. Create defensible space by clearing brush away from your home. Use fire-resistant landscaping and construction measures. Assemble emergency supplies and belongings in a safe place and plan escape routes.

Set — situational awareness. Pack your emergency items. Stay aware of the latest news and information on the fire from local media, your local fire department and public safety.

Go — Act early! Follow your personal wildland fire action plan. Doing so will not only support your safety, but will allow firefighters to best maneuverresources to combat the fire.

Dry, brittle conditions have put Hood River County fire districts on alert.

“We’re ready for a big fire, the potential is there. It’s just a matter of when,” West Side Fire Marshall Jim Trammell said.

According to Oregon Department of Forestry Senate Bill 360 (a forestland fire protection act), most of Hood River County was classified in extreme or high danger of wildfires, particularly the east and west slopes. The Odell area is the only area listed as “low risk.” The last survey of the area was five years ago and is scheduled to be redone every five years.

People are moving further from communities and out into wooded areas where they are put at greater risk, Trammell said, but wildfires can break out close to town as well.

Greg Borton, Wy’East fire chief, described predictions for the upcoming fire season as “normal,” despite winter’s moisture.

“Even though we have a lot of moisture, things are still very dry underneath,” Borton said.

A handful of early brush fires have surprised local fire officials.

On Friday, an orchardist’s burn pile at the 1400 block of Eastside Road in south Hood River swelled out of control and ate through blackberry brambles and grass, spreading to about 200 feet by 300 feet, before firefighters doused it, according to Borton.

Possible causes for the blaze were the nasty combination of wind and dry vegetation, he said.

Water issues haven’t reared as sharply as last summer. In June, Hood River County declared a drought emergency. Local irrigation districts requested water use cutbacks, and the slim water supplies were “always in the back of (firefighters’) minds,” Borton said.

The fire districts’ main supply — Crystal Spring Water District, sourced by spring water on Mount Hood’s north slope — held steady through the drought. However, Borton said dry streambeds at the time eliminated some backup options the firefighters could have tapped into in case of an all-out wildfire.

Hood River County escaped any devastating blazes, but the rest of the state wasn’t as lucky.

During the 2015 wildfire season, fires consumed about 1.6 million acres across the Northwest, including 630,000 acres in Oregon, according to an April news release by Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF).

“In Oregon alone, some 850 human-caused fires ravaged the landscape,” ODF reported.

Trammell reminded Hood River County residents that a burn ban is effective July 1. For now, fire danger is still classified as “low” and controlled burns are allowed through a permit and encouraged in the cooler morning times, from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m.

National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day is coming Saturday, May 7. The idea behind the day is to raise awareness of fire danger in springtime.

“People don’t worry about this stuff until there’s a fire,” Trammell said. “Wildfire Prevention Day is a way to keep the topic on people’s minds before the season begins. Interest goes away when winter comes. This is a way to remind everyone also that once you create a defendable space, you must maintain it.”

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