Fire and drought are Sisters watchwords
Last updated 4/19/2022 at Noon
Living in or near the forest, Sisters residents are (or should be) tuned into the possibility of fire. Now we have another natural phenomenon of which to be aware: drought. We are entering into our third summer of drought in Central Oregon with forecasts for this year to be worse than the two previous years.
When there is only 50 percent of our normal snowpack in the mountains, 25-50 percent of normal precipitation so far this year, and plenty of dry fuels around the area, the ingredients for a possible summer of fire are in place. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the outlook for April 1- June 30, 2022 released on March 31, is for a continuation of below normal precipitation. Hopefully the snow last week will provide some small relief. The western edge of Deschutes County is in a moderate drought, with conditions worsening across the county to an exceptional drought in the eastern one-third of the county.
The significant wildland fire potential outlook for both April and May 2022 identifies Central Oregon, from the Columbia River to the California border, as having above normal wildland fire potential. It is the only place in the West except for Northern California that is so designated this spring.
The National Interagency Fire Center indicated that across most of the Pacific Northwest, the risk of outbreaks of large, costly fires is expected to remain at normal levels for April. However, due to ongoing drought, risk is elevated in Central Oregon in April during periods of dry and windy weather. “Normal” is quite low risk for Oregon and Washington during the spring. The risk of spring fire comes mainly from debris burn getting loose during windy periods.
The people in charge of managing the forests and planning for the possibility of fire have been hard at work collaboratively identifying strategies to help keep us safe. At last week’s Forest Service open house, Andrew Myhra, USFS, the acting division chief for the Cascade Division of Central Oregon Fire Management Service, discussed the predictions for the 2022 fire season and the persistence of the drought.
“If the forecast conditions persist and potential for significant wildfire activity is realized here in Central Oregon this fire season, we are committed as always to aggressive initial attack under these conditions. The high-quality fuels reduction work that we continue to conduct in the wildland urban interface will pay dividends in that effort to suppress, and social tolerance of the limited smoke impacts from prescribed fire will allow us to continue to conduct the work that provides such high returns,” Myhra said.
Wildfires are already burning in New Mexico and earlier in the year in Colorado, with drought conditions persisting almost everywhere west of the Mississippi. The need for resources this summer will likely exist across the country. The Cascade Division is fortunate to have well-prepared and equipped resources.
Under the division chief in the Fire Management Office are two battalion chiefs, one in charge of fire suppression and one responsible for prescribed burns and fuels. Reporting to them are fuels technicians, fire operator supervisor, and a prevention specialist. The fire suppression battalion chief has as available resources Type 3 heavy engine, Type 6 light engine, wildland fire module, and lookouts on Black Butte and Green Ridge. The Black Butte lookout will be staffed beginning in late April and Green Ridge will be staffed by mid-June.
According to Myhra, seasonal firefighters began coming online last week. During April and May, planned underburn operations will take place as conditions permit. Smoke impacts will be minimized. To enhance fire suppression forces, additional severity resources will be staged locally depending on fire risk and as fire season progresses.
Nine prescribed burn areas covering 1,600 acres around Sisters have been identified for this spring, with six units for next fall.
For fire information in Central Oregon visit https://www.centraloregonfire.org or Twitter @CentralORfire.