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Fire officials brace for ‘above average’ conditions

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Savannah Blake/Mail Tribune | Applegate Fire Department No. 9 Fire Chief Mike Mclaughlin, left, talks with Fire District No. 3 Operations Deputy Chief Mike Hussey after a press conference with all of the Rogue Valley fire chiefs Wednesday.
Savannah Blake/Mail Tribune - Southern Oregon firefighters shake hands after apress conference Wednesday at the Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest Oregon District Headquarters in Central Point.
Fire season is already more than a month ahead of schedule, according to ODF

Ahead of another day of expected lightning, continued dry conditions and a looming heat advisory, multiple Southern Oregon fire agencies voiced hope this week that a combination of teamwork and quick action will keep the region’s wildfires under control.

Tyler McCarty, acting district forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Oregon District, described “severe to extreme drought in most areas” at a Wednesday morning press conference outside ODF headquarters, and said that the National Interagency Fire Center predicts “above average fire conditions” between June and September.

“This is about a month and a half ahead of what we typically see this time of year,” McCarty said, adding that ODF has already responded to 134 fires in southwest Oregon this season.

“That’s about 250% of normal for this time of year,” McCarty added.

McCarty said ODF has at the ready 22 engines, two water tenders, two bulldozers, three 10-person crews, a Type 3 helicopter with helitack firefighting crew and a new next-generation very large air tanker that will be based in the Rogue Valley.

The air tanker will replace a 1957 Douglas DC-7 Type 1 tanker that was among the last piston-engine tankers still in regular rotation.

McCarty was among a half dozen firefighting agency leaders who spoke Wednesday at a press conference that included the Bureau of Land Management, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and multi-agency Jackson and Josephine County Fire Defense boards. All representatives shared ways they intend to work together to target wildfires at their earliest stages.

Fire District No. 3 Deputy Chief Mike Hussey, who also spoke as the board chief for the multi-agency Jackson County Fire Defense Board, said they “remain poised to engage this summer.”

“From your smallest rural fire district up in Prospect, Greensprings or Wolf Creek down to the valley floor, we’re all engaged, working together, and we’re going to come to the fight,” Hussey said.

There were 115 lightning strikes reported in Jackson County Tuesday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Weygand. Hot, dry conditions are expected to continue.

Temperatures are expected to climb back into the triple digits later this week, according to Weygand, and heat advisories are expected by the weekend.

“It’s going to be hot today and tomorrow, but Friday until Tuesday we’re looking at extreme heat,” Weygand said. Temperatures are expected to climb as high as 110 degrees in Medford by Sunday.

Approximately 40 lightning strikes were recorded on Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest lands across the High Cascades and Siskiyou Mountains ranger districts, according to Dan Quinones, the forest’s acting fire and aviation staff officer. The lightning sparked a tenth of an acre wildfire in the Prospect area near Red Blanket Creek that has since been contained and mopped up.

More lightning is predicted Sunday through Tuesday atop the weekend heat wave, and in an updated news release Wednesday afternoon Quinones said he’s ordered additional resources.

Quinones said that the U.S. Forest Service takes the weather service’s lightning on dry fuels warnings seriously.

Resources available locally to the Forest Service include 22 engines, a Type 3 dozer, two 10-person teams, a Type 2 initial attack crew, four Type 1 water tenders, an air attack platform, a fixed-wing recon platform, staffed lookouts, the Medford Air Tanker Base and two heavy duty helicopters.

“Should the fire situation elevate, the J. Herbert Stone Nursery (in Central Point) is prepped and ready to become a staging area for additional resources that may be called in,” according to the updated release, which describes resources that include smokejumpers, single engine air tankers and other large air tankers available from Central Oregon.

RRSNF is a member of the Rogue Valley Fire Chiefs Association, according to Quinones, and the agency works to partner with local and state fire agencies.

“Relationships and networks are key to our success here in southwest Oregon,” Quinones said, describing efforts to build lines of communication between agencies and efficient allocation of resources that may be limited later this fire season.

“We have 1.8 million acres of coverage across our forest lands, five ranger districts and approximately 125 firefighters to do that,” Quinones said.

Quinones said they’ve applied 4,000 acres of prescribed fire on the landscape since last fire season — although he acknowledges “that’s not enough.” He said the RRSNF is familiar with the lands of at-risk communities outside Ashland, the Waters Creek area near Cave Junction and the areas near Agness on the coast.

“Those folks have been battered by fire and threatened by fire for a long time, and we’re doing our best to continue to protect them with our land management treatment objectives,“ Quinones said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.