When U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden looked at a map on the wall showing the southwest Oregon wildfire potential, he had no doubts what it portends for the coming summer.
"It's not rocket science — everywhere you look is brown, brown, brown," he said as he studied the map in a conference room of the joint U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Medford late Friday afternoon.
Indeed, the map was largely brown and orange, indicating much of the area has the potential for extreme fire behavior. As an example of dry conditions, U.S. National Park Service spokesman Greg Funderburk told the senator that the snow at Crater Lake National Park for January, February and March was the third lowest ever recorded.
The bottom line, warned Brian Ballou, local spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, is that the fire danger is flickering higher each day.
"This is going to have to be an all-hands-on-deck fire season," Wyden concluded after the briefing. "This fire season is not going to be for the faint-hearted."
The senator is touring Oregon to talk to federal resource agencies, wildland firefighters and others to gauge the coming 2013 fire season. The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has called a full hearing for June 4 in Washington, D.C., to discuss the 2013 fire season threat to the nation. Such hearings are normally held later in the year.
"All the signals point to the fact this is going to be a particularly challenging fire season," Wyden said. "The fact is the fires are getting bigger, the fires are getting hotter and the number of resources has diminished."
During the 2002 wildfire season, which saw the nearly half-million acre Biscuit fire in southwest Oregon, there were 44 large air tankers in the federal fleet, he said. Now there are 24.
"We are starting to sound the bugle now how serious the fire danger situation already is," Wyden said after the briefing. "I want to know what resources they have and what they are going to need.
"We want to do the coordination work, secure every possible dollar for firefighting and get the next generation aircraft out there for 2013," he added.
Wyden said he also wants to explore the possibility of using drones to help spot and fight wildland fires.
While all the experts present warned of the potential for an extreme fire season, no one raised his or her hand when asked by Wyden if they wanted to predict how many acres could burn this year.
The firefighting veterans know the amount of burned acreage could be great or small, depending largely on the whims of Mother Nature and the amount of dry lightning this year.
But they all agreed they needed to pool their resources if it turns into a worst-case scenario.
"Right now, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest will be fully staffed with all our fire equipment and crews," said Rob Budge, deputy fire staff officer for the forest. "We will have right at 140 (firefighters) across all our resources."
With the cooperation of BLM, ODF and others, the firefighting potential is in fairly good shape, he said when pressed by Wyden.
The ODF will have about 100 firefighters for Jackson and Josephine counties, Ballou told the senator.
"One thing we do have in southwest Oregon is a lot of contract folks," Budge said of wildland firefighters and their equipment for hire.
A fire crew of young military veterans based in the district is ready for its second fire season, noted Allen Mitchell, fire staff officer for the BLM's Medford District.
"Last year they were on eight assignments," he said. "It's boots on the ground. There is a pretty strong tie between military and firefighting organizations. They fit right in."
Wyden said he wanted to focus during the June 4 hearing on that crew as an example of a Southern Oregon firefighting success story.
When Wyden asked whether the federal budget sequestration had affected fire prevention, Mitchell told him budget cuts were biting deeply into the district's ability to thin areas to reduce the threat of a devastating wildfire.
"We need stability in the budgeting process," Mitchell said, noting that firefighting contractors also need to know what to expect when making plans.
Budget cuts affecting thinning and restoration work will put firefighters at greater risk in the future, he warned.
"That's an important point we need to get across," Wyden said. "This is putting communities at risk. This is putting firefighters at risk. We need to make sure that people understand these are not natural fires because of years of neglect."
Medford District manager Dayne Baron said the budget cuts also affect forest habitat.
"We are a spotted owl stronghold down here," he said. "If we get more fires like Biscuit, we are going to lose that stronghold."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.