By Paul Fattig
Mother Nature may have given Jackson and Josephine counties a good soaking in March, but she hasn’t fooled Greg Alexander or Kevin Donham.
The veteran wildlands firefighters know that weather, as it demonstrated most of the winter with precious little precipitation, can quickly turn hot and dry as summer approaches.
“We’re planning for the worst scenario,” said Alexander, assistant forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Oregon District.
“We’re still a couple of inches behind in rainfall,” he added.
“It was really wet last spring after a dry winter. But we always figure August will be hot and dry, and July always starts it off. So we’re gearing up.”
So is the staff over at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, where Donham is the fire staff officer.
“We are close to the conditions we had last year at this time,” Donham said.
“A month ago, it looked really dry here. March beat on this part of the region as far as moisture is concerned. But, as a caveat, how that equates to last fire season, ask me in October.”
Based on its study of long-range weather predictions, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland predicts that fire danger is unlikely to rise significantly until late June in Western Oregon. In its April 1 through July prediction, which was released Monday, the center called for a cooler than normal April. The first fire-season forecast of the year will be updated May 1.
March dropped 3.4 inches of rain on Medford, more than twice the average of 1.66 inches for the month.
Since Sept. 1, 12.28 inches of rain has been recorded at the National Weather Service office at the Medford airport, more than two inches below the average of 14.44 inches for this time of year. The average water year (from September through August) drops about 18 inches on the weather station.
The local fire season, a period when open fires are greatly restricted, usually begins in late May or within the first two weeks of June, although it has started as early as mid-April. The decision when to begin the annual fire season is made after ODF consults with local fire district officials, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
ODF firefighters protect 1.8 million acres of state, private, county, city and BLM lands in the two counties. National forest areas generally include higher-elevation lands in the region and usually remain under snow late into spring. The U.S. Forest Service has its own wildland firefighters.
No matter how much more rain the region receives this spring, fire season will arrive, observed Donham, who has fought fires for 30 seasons.
“We will have fires — we always do,” Donham said. “With lightning fires, we know they are coming because of the interagency center forecasts. We can prepare for them. But human-caused fires are more problematic. They are a lot more random, less predictable.”
He expects roughly the same number of firefighters and equipment as last year to be available on the forest. That includes air tankers at the Medford air tanker base as needed, nine initial attack resources scattered through the forest, a 20-member Rogue River Interagency Hotshot crew based at Prospect and 16 firefighters who rappel from helicopters based at the Josephine County airport in Merlin.
Over at the ODF district office in Central Point, about 100 seasonal firefighters are usually hired for the district, joining the roughly 30 permanent employees. ODF also expects to post a fire retardant air tanker at the Medford airport tanker base by mid-July. A firefighting helicopter will also be based at its district office in Central Point and in Merlin.
Meanwhile, local residents can help firefighters by being extremely careful with any activity that could ignite a fire, Alexander said. Rural residents should also make sure grass and brush is cut near homes to create a fire-safe zone, he added.
“This is the time to clean up around the house and create fuel breaks,” he said. “Make sure the brush and tall grass is cleaned out and the trees limbed up.”
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.