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Fire in the forecast

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The forecast is calling for an above average risk of large wildfires in Southern Oregon this summer, but the peak danger won’t hit until August.

If the prediction holds true, the worst fires could strike a month later than they did in 2018 — when a massive July 15 lightning storm sparked more than 150 fires.

Firefighters snuffed out the majority while they were still small, but the ones that escaped grew into large-scale blazes that filled the sky with smoke into the fall.

“Consistent outlooks have shown that the West Coast, particularly the coast of Oregon and Washington, is at risk of a warmer than typical summer in 2019. So even though we’re starting off with things quite moist in southwest Oregon, we’re anticipating that by August the potential for large, costly fires will ramp up to above average,” said John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

The center in Portland makes wildfire predictions for Oregon and Washington, while also coordinating regional firefighting resources.

Saltenberger cautioned that the science of long-range predictions for wildfires is still in its infancy.

But the center was right on target last year with its prediction that wildfire risk would spike in Southern Oregon in July.

Saltenberger said this year’s spring rain won’t have much impact on the intensity of wildfires in July and August.

“Certainly a wet spring can delay the onset of fire season. But inevitably it dries out in the summer,” he said.

Fire managers said spring rain keeps fuels moist longer, but it also spurs a flush of new growth that later dries out and increases the fire danger.

The fire season officially begins June 1 on lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Oregon District. ODF is tasked with protecting private property as well as Bureau of Land Management land.

On Thursday, ODF, BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, local fire chiefs, community leaders and others gathered in Medford for a fire management training exercise. Faced with a simulation of multiple wildfires raging across the area, they honed their strategies for working together.

On Friday, boots hit the ground, as more than 120 firefighters demonstrated their skills southwest of Grants Pass. They torched burn piles from a fuels-reduction project near Waters Creek, where crews have thinned 3,500 acres to help protect rural homes and the forest.

Firefighters hauled hoses, chainsaws and other equipment up steep terrain, hacked fire lines and kept the burning piles of debris under control.

“We’re making sure that they’re prepared for the upcoming fire season, offering a training opportunity and also taking care of some of our hazardous fuels that we have on the landscape,” said Dan Quinones, deputy fire staff in charge of operations for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

If one word could describe the mindset of firefighters right now, Quinones said, that would be “preparedness.”

“We hate to predict the fire season, but if the last two fire seasons have taught us anything, it’s that preparedness is key,” he said.

Firefighting agencies have been hiring seasonal workers and doing intensive training to get ready. The training exercise at the fuels-reduction project helped supervisors and firefighters make final adjustments to their on-the-ground skills, Quinones said.

Training while also helping forest health and community safety is a win-win, said Michael McCann, assistant fire management operations officer for the Wild Rivers Ranger District on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

“It’s an area where we can fight fire on our terms. A lot of work has gone into here with fuels reduction and pile burning,” he said.

Agencies throughout the area have been working to thin overstocked forests that act as tinderboxes for wildfires.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest exceeded its goal of treating 6,000 acres before the start of fire season, said Eric Hensel, fire and aviation staff officer.

He said all agencies are focused on attacking fires while they are still small.

“We’re going to continue to stay aggressive with initial attack on all fires. We’re operating together to have cohesive initial attack across southwest Oregon,” Hensel said.

Initial attack capabilities were overwhelmed by the number of fire starts from last July’s lightning storm, he said.

Agencies want to nip fires in the bud, before they turn into large-scale wildfires that require extended battles, he said.

Hensel said plans call for the Medford Air Tanker Base at the airport to be up and running by early July. The base can host a variety of helicopters and planes, including the aptly named Very Large Air Tankers — jets that can drop massive loads of fire retardant.

“We’ve been working hard here at the forest with our partners to make sure we’re prepared for the upcoming fire season,” Hensel said. “We’re trying to get ready for a potentially busy season. We’re hoping for the best and that the pre-work that we’ve done is going to pay off and will provide for community protection.”

While humans can’t control lightning, fire officials are reminding people to do their part to prevent wildfires.

Beginning June 1, burning debris in piles or in barrels is no longer permitted in Jackson and Josephine counties. The use of exploding targets and tracer ammunition is also prohibited, according to ODF.

Over the past few weeks, ODF responded to multiple debris burns that escaped. The agency urges landowners to check their previously burned piles to be sure they are extinguished.

“We want the public to have fun this summer, but be careful,” said ODF Public Information Officer Natalie Weber. “One spark can really impact a lot of people in different ways, from smoke in the air to fire in their neighborhood.”

For more information on all fire season restrictions, call 541-664-3328 in Jackson County and 541-474-3152 in Josephine County, or see swofire.com.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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