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A jump on fire season

Monday's start of the summer wildfire season is southwest Oregon's earliest in two decades and brings similar wildland conditions that helped make last year the worst here in more than a decade.

Faced with drought conditions and forecasts for a hot and dry summer, local Oregon Department of Forestry crews expect to be scurrying all summer to beat down flames on non-Forest Service lands in Jackson and Josephine counties.

Whether it's large numbers of fires or vast acreages burned, this year's fire-rich conditions and the region's history for tindered terrain will keep men and women in yellow fire shirts on the go.

"We're expecting a busy season and we have to because we're busy here every year," says Greg Alexander, state forestry's Medford Unit forester. "It could be a pretty bad year, or just a very active year."

Armed with a cache of helicopters, ground crews and a air tanker again stationed at the Medford airport, fire crews will focus their efforts on swarming new fires. That, they hope, will help the region escape larger conflagrations such as two fires last year largely responsible for the highest acreage burned on state-protected lands here since 2002.

"That's the goal with our forces," Alexander said. "If we can catch the fire small, it's safer to attack, a lot less expensive and a lot less complicated."

ODF fire crews focus largely on initial attack on private, county, state and federal Bureau of Land Management lands where they are responsible for fire suppression.

Last year's fire season started one day later than this year, which at the time was the earliest since the June 1 start of fire restrictions in 1994. The 348 fires that ODFW crews fought last year blew the doors off the 10-year running average of 203 fires.

Those fires not only burned often, they burned long. The 43,078 acres charred here last year on state-protected lands were the most since 1926's record burn of 76,840 acres, according to ODF stats.

One large fire in northern Josephine County contributed the lion's share of that acreage and shows how just a couple of bad breaks can lead to big problems.

The lightning-caused Big Windy Complex in BLM lands within the Wild and Scenic Section of the Lower Rogue River bypassed Zane Grey's historic fishing cabin, but did blacken 27,555 acres before fall rains closed the books on it. It boosted the total lightning-caused fire acreage to 42,284 acres last year.

The district's 222 human-caused fires accounted for 794 acres.

"A lot of little starts is something we can manage," Alexander said. "But it's hard to predict what's going to happen with the weather and the fire starts.

"There are always people around to fight fires," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to find them or bring them in from far away."

The local fire season usually comes down to starts and resources. Are there resources available to pummel new fires just after they start, or have fires in other regions siphoned off helicopters, ground crews and Medford's air tanker?

The Southwest District's budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1 is just under $6.78 million, up more than $200,000 from last year, Ballou said. The majority of that money goes to firefighting efforts, he said.

This year's allotted resources are very similar to last year's, Alexander said.

Equipment stationed in Central Point will include two bulldozers, a helicopter capable of dropping up to 300 gallons of water and a smaller helicopter capable of dropping 90 gallons of water but also able to ferry firefighters, he said.

Another smaller helicopter will be stationed in Grants Pass, along with two five-person crews, Alexander said. Though stationed there, they are considered part of the statewide resources and can be peeled away to fight fires elsewhere in the state should they be needed.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Jackson Count Fire District volunteer firefighter Steve Parks cools a burn pile fire off Dead Indian Memorial Road in Ashland.