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Fire season here: C.O. firefighters await call to action

By John Hendricks
Published On: Jun 14 2013 09:00:12 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 14 2013 09:20:14 AM CDT

NewsChannel 21's John Hendricks visits a Redmond-based firefighting business and a Forest Service fuels specialist who says we're primed for an active wildfire season

REDMOND, Ore. -

Fuels are drying out on the High Desert and local crews are ready to head wherever they are needed.

"When they need the help, they're going to call us -- and when they call us, we'll respond," PatRick Corp. Rick Dice said Wednesday.

The latest outlook for Oregon shows significant fire threat for the month of July, but when we enter August and September, predictive services says the entire state of Oregon will see an above-average potential for fire.

"Some years start in May and April, some years June-July, you just never know," Dice said.

Dice added that in Central Oregon alone, they have nearly 120 firefighters ready to put out any fire, and can travel. Last year, the farthest they went was Minnesota.

"It's a lot of anxiety for the kids, waiting to go to work," Dice said. "But that's just the name of the game."

Deschutes National Forest Fuels Specialist John Erwert says even with the recent rain, it's still really dry.

Erwert says fuels like downed trees and large limbs are nearly bone dry, something that will make for very active fires.

"It would pose greater resistance to control, with greater flame length and with short and long-range spotting," Erwert said.

For now, local firefighters wait for the call to move into action.

Drying conditions prompted the Oregon Department of Forestry's Central Oregon District to declare the start of wildfire season starting Friday, nearly two weeks earlier than last year. A recent uptick in small fires led District Forester George Ponte to make the call.

"From the first of the year to May, the district has had only about 30 percent of normal precipitation," he said. "We considered declaring fire season in early May, but we experienced some cool, wet weather during May which bought us some time. The current and forecast weather is more summer-like, so fuels are drying quickly and fire risk is increasing."

The declaration of fire season imposes certain restrictions on recreational and work activities in the forest. Industrial operators are required to have firefighting equipment on site. Since restrictions may vary across the state, it is advisable to check with the nearest Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) office for rules specific to the local area.  

The Central Oregon District has tightened fire safety rules to prevent human-caused fires. Open burning is prohibited without a permit issued by ODF or a local fire department.

However, most fire departments have already suspended issuing such permits. Homeowners considering burning yard waste must check with their local fire department about current burning restrictions prior to lighting any fires

Wildfire safety restrictions can change quickly during the season and vary from one jurisdiction to another. Recreationists planning to visit National Forests, U.S. Bureau of Land Management or other federal lands are advised to check with those offices for information on current restrictions.

"I think most folks are well aware that much of Eastern Oregon is experiencing drought conditions," Ponte said. "The professionals that forecast fire conditions anticipate higher than normal potential for large, destructive wildfires, not only in Oregon but in much of the West.

"The number of fires we get is largely a factor of how much lightning there is during fire season. But any fire that starts, whether caused by lightning or human activities, will have potential of becoming a large and destructive one."

In 2012, the district declared fire season on June 25.

ODF's Central Oregon District provides wildfire protection on 2.2 million acres of private and public forest and grazing land in 10 counties (Crook, Deschutes, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Hood River, Jefferson, Morrow, Wasco and Wheeler) in the north-central portion of Oregon. Offices are located in Prineville, Sisters, John Day, The Dalles and Fossil.

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