'Normal' fire forecast expected this season

When Rick Ochoa looks into his crystal ball, he sees a normal summer fire season for Jackson and Josephine counties.

But the fire weather program manager for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which bases its forecast solely on science, cautions that several factors could affect whether that prediction comes true.

"Right now, when we look at the precipitation for the Northwest, the Cascades and southwestern Oregon are improving — they are much closer to normal now," he said Wednesday.

"But our 'normal' fire forecast is based on what has happened," he cautioned. "We expect to have a warmer-than-normal and a drier-than-normal summer. And there are really two big factors yet to be played out."

Those factors include how much precipitation occurs through the rest of May and June, and the summer lightning activity, he said.

More rainfall at the lower elevations this time of year would increase grass growth, creating more dry fire fuel later in the summer, he said.

But more snow in the higher elevations this time of year would delay drying in that region, he added.

"One of the things we don't know about is the lightning activity," he said. A series of drying lightning storms after a long hot, dry spell could spark wildfires.

The center's fire season outlook is based on an evaluation of woodland fuels, weather forecasts, climate and drought data.

Although southwestern Oregon is expected to have normal wildfire potential, a portion of south-central Oregon just east of the Cascade Range and northeastern California can expect above normal potential for wildfires, Ochoa said.

Keeping a close eye on the center's report is veteran firefighter Brian Ballou, fire prevention specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District.

"The way spring has gone, we've had enough rain and snow to postpone the spring fires we usually are getting by now," Ballou said. "That has postponed the forest fires for a while.

"But a few days of temperatures in the 80s will dry the blackberries and grass out quick," he added. "We will be chasing fires before long."

Although the spring has been cooler and wetter than normal, the winter has been drier. Since last September, the rain gauge at the National Weather Service station near the Medford airport has registered 12.75 inches of rain as of Wednesday. The normal for this time of year is slightly more than 16 inches.

The ODF's firefighters respond to wildfires on private, county, state and U.S. Bureau of Land Management forests and brushlands. Working with local natural resource agencies, the department also takes the lead in deciding when fire season begins.

Last year's fire season, a period when open burning is banned with few exceptions, began June 19.

As it has done in recent summers, the ODF expects to post a fire retardant air tanker at the Medford airport tanker base early in July as the fire season heats up, Ballou said. A firefighting helicopter also will be based at its district office in Central Point and in Merlin, he added.

Meanwhile, the National Interagency Fire Center will be updating its wildfire forecast early in June.

"One of the areas we'll be keeping an eye on is that area just east of the Cascades in south-central Oregon," Ochoa said, noting the next forecast will reflect any changes in the data officials gather.

As for Ochoa, he would like to see a change in the forecast, albeit he knows it's highly unlikely. "I hope we have a cool, wet summer," he said.

Paul Fattig is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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