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Acres burned on state lands low — so far

State wildfire managers are staring at what they fear could be a raging second half of the summer wildfire season in Southern Oregon after a meek start in which the number of fires here outnumbered the acres burned.

With close to half the summer wildfire season behind us, the number of fires is actually up about 25 percent, yet only a sliver of Oregon Department of Forestry-protected lands has been burned compared to a normal year, state records show.

But tinder fuels primed by a second straight drought year have wildland firefighters bracing for at least one of those larger conflagrations that are often a summer staple in Southern Oregon.

"It's been going well, but I don't expect that to last," says Oregon Department of Forestry fire spokesman Brian Ballou. "We're fully expecting to get some big fires this year, and we can't help but expect that's just around the corner."

To that end, state foresters Tuesday will increase fire danger to "extreme," triggering several new restrictions on the use of chainsaws and other power equipment on private, county, state and Bureau of Land Management lands in Jackson and Josephine counties.

The use of chainsaws, mowers and other power-driven equipment will be banned between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., and off-road driving is banned for all but commercial agriculture work. Several other restrictions remain, including bans on debris and barrel burning, smoking outside of vehicles while on state-protected lands and no campfires or charcoal fires outside of approved fire rings in designated campgrounds.

Ballou says firefighters encourage rural landowners to keep their dry grass down and prepare a defensible space around their structures in southwestern Oregon, which has some of the highest densities of urban-rural interface in the state.

"Right now, we're at the tipping point with dryness," Ballou says.

Southern Oregon launched into fire season June 5 expecting a long and troublesome struggle with wildfires after a second straight year of drought.

ODF brought on crews earlier than normal, and a June 11 lightning fire from an unseasonable burst of thunderheads two days earlier quickly charred 46 acres in the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area. Fire crews feared it was an ominous precursor of a grim summer of smoke, and fire restrictions went to "high" two days later.

Despite the hottest June on record in Jackson County, wildland crews were able to hop on an unusually large number of lightning fires so quickly that the Soda Mountain fire remains the largest of the year here so far.

To date, state crews have fought 155 wildfires that burned 145 acres, ODF statistics show. Of those, 44 were lightning fires that charred 72 acres, according to ODF.

The local 10-year average is 118 fires burning in excess of 5,000 acres by this point in the season, according to ODF. While the region averages 27 lightning fires by this point in the summer, those fires burn an average of about 4,700 acres by the end of the fourth week in July, statistics show.

"We were fully expecting to have far more acres burned at this time," Ballou says.

While burned acreage was much higher to date on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, the number and size of wildfires so far this summer are down there as well, forest spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons says.

To date, national forest crews have fought 46 lightning fires that collectively burned 5,393 acres — with all but 50 acres coming from the Buckskin fire near Cave Junction, Gibbons says. The 12 human-caused fires on the forest together burned less than an acre, Gibbons says.

National forestlands are higher elevation, while BLM and other state-protected lands are in lower elevations.

ODF officials were close to declaring "extreme" fire restrictions in early July, but unseasonable rains helped alleviate deteriorating conditions at the time.

But August typically brings thunderheads from the southeast, which keep firefighters eyeing the night sky.

"Normally we get our worst thunderstorms about now," Ballou says. "At least it doesn't look like it'll be throwing lightning at us in the near future."

The National Weather Service is predicting cooler temperatures in the Rogue Valley until Wednesday, when triple-digit heat is expected to return.

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