State wildland firefighters plan aggressive initial attacks on Southern Oregon wildfires this season, hoping to repeat last year’s success at curbing burned acreage on non-Forest Service lands to less than one-fifth of normal.
The 2018 wildfire season officially begins Friday, June 1, on lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry, which is taking its aggressive-but-safe approach to initial attacks on grass, brush and forest fires.
Jumping early on wildfire starts proved effective in 2017, when the season opened June 4 and saw 350 fires char just over 1,000 acres during the 138-day season, according to ODF.
While the number of fire starts was about one-third more than the 10-year running average of 230 fires per year, burned acreage in 2017 was less than 20 percent of the 10-year average of 5,600 acres, according to ODF.
The quick-attack approach also helped contain 97 percent of ODF’s fires here to less than 10 acres, records show.
Those numbers do not include Forest Service blazes, among them the Chetco Bar fire that neared 200,000 acres by itself.
ODF is responsible for wildfire suppression on private, state, county and Bureau of Land Management lands, and the majority of its fires are human-caused.
Lightning is the culprit for wildfires in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, where crews are up and ready for what they expect to be an above-average season, thanks to well-below-average snowpack.
Already, the forest has seen about a half-dozen lightning fires, some of which have burned more intenselv than normal for this time of year, said Eric Hense, the forest’s fire-management officer.
“Lightning is what keeps us hopping,” Hensel said. “The conditions are set for us to have a busy fire season, but it depends upon what those storms bring.”
The air-tanker base at the Medford airport also will be available and ready to load retardant June 1, Hensel said.
On hand initially will be ODF’s air tanker, with federal tankers joining the force depending upon activity because they go where they are most needed, Hensel said.
On state-protected lands, fire-danger level will begin Friday at “low,” which means no burning of debris in piles or burn barrels, and no fireworks, tracer ammunition or exploding targets are allowed on public or private lands.
Commercial operations such as timber harvest, farming and ranching will be required to keep fire-suppression equipment on hand at all times and provide a fire watch.
The season begins in drought-like conditions — despite recent rains, precipitation has been below average for the past two months and is about 5 1/2 inches below average for the water year. That, combined with some early hot temperatures, has caused grasses to dry out and become fire-prone rapidly.
Grass fires are the most common wildland fires in Southern Oregon.
Unlike ODF, the national forest does not declare an official fire season, forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer said.
When conditions get to moderate fire danger, however, the forest generally imposes public restrictions, usually beginning with campfire rules in the Wild and Scenic Section of the Rogue River, Kramer said.
While ODF had a good year, Oregon as a whole is coming off a 2017 wildfire season that proved to be the most expensive in the past century, according to the Forest Service.
A Forest Service report released in January concluded that wildfire suppression costs tallied $454 million during a season that logged more than 2,000 fires totaling about 665,000 acres statewide.
The cost was more than triple the average of $146 million state and federal agencies spent on fighting wildfires between 2010 and 2015, the report states. At one point during last fall’s 191,125-acre Chetco Bar fire near Brookings, more than 10,300 firefighters were on the ground in Oregon, the report states.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.