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Holiday no break for crews chasing C.O. smoke reports

By Alicia Inns
Published On: Dec 24 2013 03:55:43 AM CST
Updated On: Sep 02 2013 10:41:29 PM CDT

NewsChannel 21's Alicia Inns talks with fire officials who say fire season is far from over.

BEND, Ore. -

Five more smoke reports were received on Labor Day by Central Oregon fire dispatchers, and at least three were confirmed to be human-caused, officials said Monday evening.

One of the five was on private property protected by the state Department of Forestry, and John Day-area dispatchers handled it, according to the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center in Prineville.

A half-dozen more smoke reports came in Sunday, mostly from "party fires" in the woods, as a new threat of thunderstorms returns later this week.

Four of those six reports were tied to parties, based on the evidence left behind, COIDC said.

One was a holdover single-tree lightning fire in the Diamond Peak Wilderness, and another was a fifth-wheel camper fire on Hwy. 20 about 80 miles east of Bend that put up a thick, black smoke plume.

COIDC's Sunday night shift received no smoke reports to record as incidents, officials said Monday. However, calls of illegal campfires and "party fires" continued to come in through the evening, for which law enforcement officers issued citations. Fire crews are staffed and ready, they said.

Fire weather watches and red flag warnings will be in effect Wednesday and Thursday over much of the High Desert, as local fire danger remains high and a threat of thunderstorms returns.

A half-dozen smoke reports came in Saturday -- and half were found to be caused by abandoned campfires or a lit cigarette on a warm Labor Day weekend in the still-dry woods.

Citations have been issued in at least one of those cases, the dispatch center said.

"This serves as a reminder of the continued high fire danger in the area and the probability of fire starts from human carelessness," they saud.

A fourth smoke report was found to be a campfire in an approved fire ring, so no action was taken.

A fifth was a previously reported and tackled wildfire in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area that became active again, while the sixth smoke report was spotted nearby by the jump plane on its mission to that fire, COIDC said. Both wilderness fires have smokejumpers on them.

On Sunday morning, the dispatch center reported the night shift got no new smoke reports, but did get another call about a campfire and two about fireworks, "so the potential of human-caused fires is still with us."

The Industrial Fire Precautions Level is at 3 on the Crooked River National Grasslands, the Ochoco and Deschutes national forests, and BLM lands. That means no power saw use is allowed anywhere on these lands except at log loading sites between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m. Lands protected by Oregon Department of Forestry remain under regulated closure until further notice.     

Fire season is clearly not over, and Central Oregon fire crews are still ready for anything -- and scrambling to put out small new blazes as smoke columns emerge, caused by nature or campers.

"From the perspective of, if we are not out of the woods for fire season yet? No, we are not," Craig Letz, a fire staff officer for Central Oregon Fire Management Service, said Friday.  "We did get more fires in August than we did in July."

Earlier Saturday, the dispatch center said it received three smoke reports during the Friday evening shift. 

One was in the cluster of last Sunday’s lightning strikes northeast of Bend, one was a confirmed campfire that the campers extinguished after firefighters arrived, and the third was a suspected campfire being checked on Saturday.

COIDC said fire crews are staffed and ready for whatever Labor Day weekend brings. Air resources Saturday included one heavy air tanker, one air attack, one aerial supervision module (serves as both air attack and lead plane), two jump planes, one medium helicopter, and one light helicopter. 

Local fire danger remains high, officials said, as does the risk of wildfire from escaped campfires and warming fires.

As a busy August comes to a close, all eyes shift to September, when fire season used to end. But this year could be different.

One of last seasons biggest wildfires -- the 26,000-acre Pole Creek Fire near Sisters -- started in September.

"We are certainly prepared for it to go through September. That's not an unusual thing for us any more. The Pole Creek Fire started on Sept. 9th, so there's a lot of fire season left," Letz said.

Cooler temperatures and more thunderstorms are on the way. But it's a double-edged sword.

If it rains during a thunderstorm, the forests and firefighters get some major relief. But the lightning strikes could still trigger more wildfires.  

"If the moisture comes with the lightning, then it can be several days before the fire actually shows," Letz explained.

It's not all about Mother Nature, either. Hunting season is getting into full swing, bringing more people to the forest and raising the possibility for human caused fires.

"Right now, there are some public use restrictions," Letz said. "So there are some limitations in place, and we are monitoring that."

And even when there aren't any more fires burning, whether that's next month or into October, crews will still be busy getting a handle on next fire season, making it a year-round battle.

"We spend a lot of time in the winter preparing for the next fire season, training of course. But certainly, there is still a lot of potential for fires left," Letz said.

A list of the public use restrictions is available at these two websites: A list is available on either of these two web sites http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/centraloregon/fire/ or http://www.blm.gov/or/districts/prineville/index.php.

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