Drought worsens, raising fire concerns
Last updated 5/25/2021 at Noon
You don’t have to be a hydrologist to know that we are in the midst of a drought, worsening by the week. A look at the snow cover on the mountains, streamflows in nearby rivers, and reservoir levels reveals tell-tale signs of what forest and fire district managers see as potential danger signs as the summer progresses.
Nearly 70 percent of Deschutes, Crook, and Jefferson counties are in level D3 (extreme drought) as of May 13, according to the National Weather Service. Parts of southwestern Deschutes County are at the top level — D4 (exceptional drought). The problem is statewide and the governor has already declared Klamath, Jackson, and Lake counties disaster areas.
The implications for stressed vegetation, crop irrigation, and low streamflow negatively impacting fish habitat, are of deepening concern. Effects on wildlife grazing and livestock rangeland are a worry for government and private landowners alike.
Streamflow volume forecasts for April to September dropped precipitously, some 30 to 60 percent compared to the forecast of just two months ago. The problem starts with snowpack, or in this case the lack of it. By May most of the snowpack had melted. Only the Hood-Sandy-Lower Deschutes watersheds were at or above normal (110 percent).
The John Day watershed has only five percent of normal snow pack. Upper Deschutes-Crooked watershed is at 64 percent of normal. The Climate Prediction Center shows a continuing trend of warmer than usual temps through September. Historical precipitation for Sisters Country is already less than .5 inches through June, July, and August, so any decline is impactful.
Just how bad is it? One year ago, the streamflow was 150.91 CFS (cubic feet per second) on the Crooked River at Prineville. Now it’s a trickle at 1.07 CFS. The Deschutes at Benham Falls was flowing at 1,577 CFS last May 17 but only 1,078 this May 17. Our own Whychus Creek is running 10 percent lower than a year ago.
The Haystack Reservoir near Culver is down 232 acre feet year over year, a modest drop. Prineville Reservoir is at 57 percent of capacity. Wickiup, Oregon’s second-largest reservoir, has declined in acre feet from 112,293, its level a year ago, to 81,513 last week. Reservoir depth is a critical factor for tourism and crop irrigation.
Sisters is a relative oasis
With wells as our water source, not flowing streams, there will be virtually no impact within the city limits. Likewise, our lakes, an essential part of tourism, are generally not affected by drought. Suttle Lake’s source of water is groundwater seepage which keeps it full throughout the year. Three Creek Lake, Round Lake, and Square Lake are constant-level lakes, spring fed or from year-round snow melt. The Metolius River, vital to tourism, is spring fed, a major part of its lore and lure.
Both the McKenzie and Santiam rivers, popular with Sisters visitors and locals, are expected to have lower seasonal flows yet within the normal range, advises High Country Expeditions, rafting outfitters in McKenzie Bridge.
From the front lines
The developing drought is already evident on the slopes of our iconic mountains where longtime locals perceive late June-like cover in early May. Chief Roger Johnson of Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District says his crews have done nothing significantly different in observation of conditions. There was a four-day open burning moratorium two weeks ago when the combination of winds and dryness presented risk. Otherwise, Johnson says the full-time open burning season will end as usual on May 31.
There is no yard debris burning at any time within the city of Sisters. The annual FireFree event at the NW Transfer Station on Fryrear Road started May 22 and runs through June 5, whereby anybody can discard yard debris free of charge at the Fryrear Transfer Station Wednesday-Saturday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. The event enables home and property owners to reduce wildfire risk to their structures without cost. (See related story)
Chris Dayton is acting Wildland Fire Supervisor for ODF (Oregon Department of Forestry) for the Sisters Sub-Unit Office. His unit is the beneficiary of the ODF Fuels Group, who actively monitor both live and dead fuels moisture content throughout the state in hopes of greater prevention and better preparedness.
“The drought’s deceptive, as we are in the greening season and things look alive and thriving,” he said, “but there is already stress… Educating the public is a big part of our job now, especially regarding fuels reduction.”
The threat of drought-fueled fire is felt particularly by Sisters District Ranger Ian Reid. He has some interesting anecdotal evidence to go along with the raw data.
“Mushroom hunters are complaining,” Reid said. “Lack of water has been a real drag on their business.”
He mentions that the Redmond Air Tanker base is already positioning assets and personnel about a month early. Specifically with respect to live fuels moisture content, Reid reports “Sage is 25 percent lower, and at a 12-year low.”
Avery Hartsell, ranch foreman for Sisters View Ranch, tells The Nugget that they expect the usual August reduction of water from the irrigation district to begin in July this year, forcing them into high-cost supplemental well water.
“With higher prices for fuel and fertilizer plus added water cost, hay consumers are going to take a big hit this year,” Avery said.
Typically, when Hartsell puts the ranch’s cows into spring pasture the natural vegetation from ground water is eight to 10 inches tall, but it is only two to three inches this year, an early indicator of the drought’s intensity. All agree that we are in for a hot, dry, and potentially dangerous summer.