You think fires are bad now ...
If you think we’ve had a horrible run of fire years recently, turn back the clock to the 1930s and it would have rivaled the early 2000s.
“The 1930s had the highest number of fires,” said Bill Kuhn, ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “We’ve had the second-highest number this past decade.”
The size of fires has been steadily increasing over the past few decades, Kuhn said. In the 1930s, there were more reports of fires, though many weren’t large and the reporting wasn’t as accurate, he said.
By size, the Biscuit fire in 2002 was the worst ever on federal lands in Oregon, scorching some 500,000 acres, and the Chetco Bar fire last year was second worst at 192,000 acres.
A different story emerges from records of fires on state lands, protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The period from 1911 to 1939 saw a stretch of monster blazes on state-managed lands.
The peak years for fires were 1932 and 1933, according to data collected by the Oregon Department of Forestry. The Tillamook fire of 1933 raged through 350,000 acres. During that period, there were 20 years with significant numbers of fires in both drought and non-drought years.
By comparison, from 1939, with a few notable exceptions, it has been a significantly quieter time for fires, helped by a 30-year cooling stretch from 1947 to 1976. A couple of notable years during that time were 1945 and 1951, with almost 800 fires breaking out in each of those years.
Kuhn said that it was a relatively quieter time for fires on U.S. forestlands, as well.
Activity picked up again in 1987 when some 600 blazes erupted across the state, including the Douglas Complex.
In 2002, 2013 and 2015, the Oregon Department of Forestry had more than 500 wildland fires in each year, a large number but far fewer than the first half of the 1900s.
In 2002, the Monument Complex, the Biscuit fire and the Tiller Complex resulted in the worst fire year for state lands since 1951, when the Tillamook Burn was one of almost 600 fires raging across the state.
In data obtained from ODF, human-caused fires were the primary culprit in the early 1900s, while lightning played a lesser role.
Stephen Baker, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said humans need to be aware that they cause a significant number of fires each year. Firefighters have their hands full with existing lightning-caused fires and have been stretched thin, especially with the Redding fire that erupted this week.
Baker said modern-day firefighting began in 1910 as a response to a 3-million-acre conflagration in Idaho and Montana. Appropriately, the fire was named The Big Burn.
“That jump-started a modern, more aggressive firefighting response,” he said.
Lookout stations emerged during the period, which became more critical to catching fires before they spread.
“About 97 to 98 percent of fires are caught early,” Baker said.
In 1911, the Pulaski, a firefighting ax, was deployed, and various agencies were formed that began to take leadership roles to corral the bigger blazes.
By the late 1940s, aircraft began helping with firefighting efforts, including the use of retardant and aerial photography.
Lately the Forest Service and other agencies have begun use of drones to scout terrain.
Baker said satellite mapping and heat-spot detection have improved, as well.
Weather forecasting is an important tool, particularly when lightning strikes are anticipated. By finding the location of the strike as early as possible, firefighters can put out a blaze before it spreads.
This year the spate of fires burning around the Rogue Valley has led to unhealthy air, but the actual number of acres that have burned remains relatively low compared to the big fire years.
The largest fire burning is the Garner Complex in Jackson and Josephine counties, and it was at more than 25,000 acres Friday, with 25-percent containment. The Natchez fire, which includes the Klondike, Granite and Poker fires in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness west of Selma, is the next largest, having burned through more than 10,000 acres in Southern Oregon and Northern California as of Friday.
A number of other fires are burning some distance from Medford, including the Hendrix, Sugar Pine, South Umpqua and Crater Timber 6 fires, but close enough to keep the smoke around.