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Luck, quick action kept fires at bay

Southern Oregon has enjoyed a mostly smoke-free fire season — so far — and responders have done a great job of jumping on the fires that did start and keeping them from getting out of control. That good news comes with some caveats.

First, if you’ll pardon the expression, we’re not out of the woods yet. Fire season is still in effect. Second, the mild fire season is thanks to luck and cooperative weather, not to any strong action from Oregon’s political leaders. Third, this year’s clean air does not mean we won’t see smoke-filled skies in future years, because the state of the forests has not changed.

The only serious smoke this summer came from the Milepost 97 fire, ignited July 24 by an illegal campfire south of Canyonville. That smoke was blessedly brief compared with the past two fire seasons.

A combination of fortunate circumstances has kept fires few and small. While there has been lightning, it was accompanied this season by significant rain, which is not always the case. Overall temperatures have been relatively mild, with few days in triple digits.

Perhaps most important, because fire activity has been quiet across the region, significant firefighting resources were ready and waiting when fires did start, rather than already being assigned to fires elsewhere.

In addition, and to their credit, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest requested and obtained an extra $249,000 in federal funding to beef up fire attack resources when lightning was predicted the last week of August, and the Oregon Department of Forestry called up all available staff to be ready to respond to lightning fires.

That’s a big reason why the Gyda fire that broke out Aug. 29 between Ruch and Applegate was more than 50% contained in just two days. The cause is still undetermined.

Air tankers waiting on the ground in Medford were able to completely line the fire with retardant the first day. By the third day, six water tenders, 14 engines, a bulldozer and 270 firefighters including multiple tree fallers had been deployed.

September is here, school is back in session and thoughts are turning to fall activities, but that doesn’t mean fire season is over. Far from it. Mail Tribune archives indicate fire season has ended before Oct. 1 only four times in the past 50 years. The earliest end date, Sept. 26, was recorded in 1986.

Long-time residents will remember that the very next year, the Silver Complex fire ignited on Aug. 30, 1987, consuming nearly 100,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest alone and burning until winter snows fell.

Fire season typically ends in mid-October, but even that is no guarantee that the region is out of danger. The deadly Camp fire that destroyed Paradise, California, didn’t start until Nov. 8 last year.

September temperatures have been mild so far, but true to form, lightning pounded our area Wednesday night, and fire crews were hopping on Thursday chasing down and attacking fires that started across the region. Again, some rain helped.

Going forward, we’ll be keeping a close eye on Gov. Kate Brown’s Oregon Wildfire Response Council, which is scheduled to issue its findings by the end of this month. After bills to boost firefighting response fizzled in the 2019 legislative session, the 2020 short session would be a good time to remedy that and prepare the state for next year’s fire season, which could easily look very different than this year’s.