Mother Nature isn't fooling veteran firefighter Brian Ballou by dampening Jackson and Josephine counties with April showers.
"We've expected a hot, dry summer for some time now, and it looks like it will finally be coming," said the spokesman of the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District.
"The forecast is for a much drier summer than we have been in for the last few years," he added. "We will likely have an earlier fire season than we have had for a while."
However, Ballou, who began fighting wildland fires in 1972, is quick to observe that doesn't necessarily mean the 2013 fire season will bring large fires.
"Lightning is the primary cause of large fires," he said. "We'll have to wait and see how that plays out."
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, the nation's support center for wildland firefighting, predicts that significant fire potential will increase to above normal for the Northwest and Northern California in June and July.
Here at home, the National Weather Service station at the Medford airport reported that the first three months of the year were the driest on record. The station reported a mere 1.82 inches of rain from Jan. 1 to the end of March. The previous record for those three months had been set in 1992, when 1.89 inches were recorded.
However, thanks to an abnormally wet fall, rainfall in the area since Sept. 1 is 15.63 inches, nearly an inch above the average of 14.79 inches for the period.
Fire season, which usually begins by early June, began June 20 last year and on July 1 in 2011. However, it has also started as early as mid-April.
During fire season, debris burning is limited to burn barrels at the outset, then it is completely restricted as the fire danger increases.
The department's firefighters protect private, county, state and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands, covering everything from forests to brush and grasslands. ODF works closely with the U.S. Forest Service in determining the start of fire season.
ODF will have a fire-retardant bomber stationed at the Medford airport again this fire season, Ballou said. Helicopters will be based also in Medford and Merlin, he added.
The U.S. Forest Service uses the fire base at the Medford airport as an auxiliary base, deploying fire-suppression aircraft from there when needed to battle fires on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest or national forests in far northern California.
Like Ballou, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest spokesman Paul Galloway said lightning activity will likely determine fire activity.
"When we get highly flammable conditions but don't get the lightning, we usually don't have a lot of fires," he said.
But other summers, including 1987 and 2002, brought dry lightning that torched the region, he said. The 1987 season included the nearly 100,000-acre Silver fires, while the 2002 season sparked the nearly 500,000-acre Biscuit fire, thanks to dry-lightning strikes.
"It all depends on how many lightning ignitions we get," he said. "It's always a crapshoot."
The fire staff and equipment on the forest is expected to be at the same levels as last year, he said.
Meanwhile, Ballou urged residents who live in rural areas to reduce grass, weeds and brush around structures to decrease the threat should a wildfire come their way this summer.
"Now is a good time to mow down weeds standing tall from last year," he said. "Those are among the first things to dry out. Take out any dead trees and shrubs around your house."
Any ladder fuels — fuels the fire can use to climb — should be removed from around a home before the dry season begins, officials caution.
"And anything people can do by not causing wildland fires during the fire season will benefit everybody," Ballou said.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.