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Wet year dampens fire threat

Wildfire managers believe a wet spring following a heavy snowpack will lead to a late and short wildfire season in Southern Oregon, but that won't give the region a free pass from the potential of a big fire.

"We'll have a late fire season, and we likely won't have a bad fire season," BLM spokesman Jim Whittington said. "But that doesn't mean we won't have a bad fire."

Fire season in Southern Oregon typically begins in June when grass, brush and other wildfire fuels dry out, but protracted rain and a snowpack still at 143 percent of average is forecast to create a slower drying-out period, particularly at higher elevations.

The National Weather Service, which gives presentations to wildfire bosses each spring, says the conditions are the best heading into the fire season in more than a decade.

"This is, by a lot of measures, the best snowpack year and best water year since at least 2006," Lutz said. "We'd be surprised if there were (significant) fires before mid-July, based on the state of things."

That has the Oregon Department of Forestry expecting an average wildfire season in the region, with fire-season restrictions possible around mid-June and no length of season predicted.

"We're saying it's average," said ODF spokeswoman Melissa Cano. "And even if it's a long one, that doesn't mean as intense. We'll probably see just a more low-intensity fire season."

Last year's fire season kicked off June 30 for lower-elevation lands protected by ODF, and though it ran into mid-October, it was one of the mildest in years, ODF statistics show.

The 204 fires of 2016 were 10 short of the 10-year average, and the 718 acres they burned were just 13 percent of average, ODF statistics show. Of note, only six of those wildfires were caused by lightning, compared to the 10-year average of 57.

"We got lucky last year that we didn't have that dry lightning," Cano said. "If it comes through when conditions are right, it could be the big one."

Lutz said lightning was definitely absent last year when fuels were "receptive" to fire, and it is unknown whether that dodging of disaster can be repeated again this year.

"That's the unknown," Lutz said. "We can't forecast how lightning plays into it."

ODF is responsible for wildfire fighting on private, county, state and Bureau of Land Management lands here, and it often declares fire-season restrictions on open burning, campfires and industrial restrictions earlier than the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest does for its higher-elevation lands.

"We haven't gotten to the point where we've had to talk about fire season," National Forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer said. 

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

A helicopter working with the Oregon Department of Forestry fights a wildfire north of Shady Cove in August 2016. Last year's fire season was one of the mildest in years; lingering snowpack and prolonged rain promise a similar season this year. Mail Tribune / file photo