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With pre-season conditions worst in 25 years, catastrophic wildfires expected in region this summer

Record low snowpack amid a second straight drought year has wildland managers bracing for what they consider an upcoming wildfire season in which catastrophic fire in the Cascades or Siskiyous "seems inevitable."

State and federal wildfire experts said Thursday in Medford that they expect mid- and high-elevation forestlands to be prime for generating a 2015 fire season that will start earlier, last longer and likely burn hotter than normal in this area known for summer fires.

With minimal or no snow around places such as Howard Prairie and Mt. Ashland, the sun's rays that normally would melt snow and wet the forest instead will be cooking it tinder dry this spring, making slopes more able to carry flames and more susceptible to fire starts caused by lightning downstrikes.

"It seems inevitable," said Allen Mitchell, fire management officer for the Medford District of the federal Bureau of Land Management. "It will depend on lightning."

Forest Service and BLM teams are training firefighters earlier than most years while trying to amass resources that will help combat fires expected to break out if the region sees a repeat of last year's 130,000 lightning strikes, Mitchell said.

The primed fuels ranging from downed and dead trees to brush killed during the intense freezes in the 2014 winter will mean fire crews will require larger safety zones around fires and potentially alter attack plans, Mitchell said.

"We have to rethink our risk management," Mitchell said. "We're re-inventing stuff as we go."

Mitchell's assessments came during a Thursday wildfire conditions briefing for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who also announced the securing of more than $2 million in U.S. Forest Service grants to curb wildfire risks and improve drinking water in the Ashland watershed.

This latest installment in the decade-old Ashland Forest Resiliency Project will allow contract crews to clear the forest floor of hot-burning brush and woody debris in thinning and burning projects designed by the Forest Service and implemented by private contactors.

The grant includes $1.2 million worth of work on Forest Service lands plus $1 million on private lands within the 7,600-acre project area within the Ashland watershed, considered at very high risk for catastrophic wildfire that could threaten the city.

The grant follows $6.2 million in federal stimulus money that ended in 2013 with about $4 million worth of work left. Since then, the city of Ashland has spent about $175,000 per year to treat federal lands within the watershed. Most of the work has been done by the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which will hire about 150 seasonal workers, 17 full-time employees and about 10 outside contractors for work under the new grant.

"This project is a model for collaboration," Wyden said during his Thursday briefing.

The grants were announced jointly by Wyden and his fellow Senate Democrat Jeff Merkley, and the pair have pledged to find future grants to finish the project.

Thursday's upbeat discussion of the Ashland project was tampered by what federal wildfire officials were calling the worse pre-season wildfire conditions in at least 25 years.

Meteorologist Ryan Sandler from the National Weather Service said Medford's temperatures have been 4 degrees warmer than normal this past fall and winter, during which normal rainfall levels were recorded but the snowpack at Crater Lake is at just 3 feet — less than a third of its typical early March level.

"It's unprecedented," Sandler said. "We've never had a (winter) with near-normal rainfall and low snowpack."

The dearth of mid-elevation snow will mean the sun will cook hillsides into tinderboxes waiting for a lighting strike.

"Instead of melting snow, they'll warm up and dry everything," Sandler said. "They'll be more susceptible to lightning and carrying fire.

"You're probably going to have a lot of starts and a lot of fires," Sandler said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.