Dry weather over Malheur County proves worrisome for federal fire managers

Al Crouch, the fire mitigation/education specialist for the Vale District of the Bureau of Land Management points to a section of dry ground on a nearby knoll last week. Dry conditions are prevalent across the high desert. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – Al Crouch leaned over and pushed the sagebrush leaves away until his hands clutched a batch of what looked like dried twigs.

Then he rubbed the twigs together in the palm of his hand. Dust and dirt erupted into a faint brown cloud.

“See it? Not supposed to be that dry,” he said.

Crouch, the fire mitigation/education specialist for the Vale District of the Bureau of Land Management, knows the high desert plateau of Malheur County like the back of his hand.

He knows this too: The desert landscape is too dry, too early in the 2021 fire season.

“Right now, we are trending drier than normal,” said Crouch.

Crouch said a lack of spring storms deprived the region of the kind of moisture it needs to remain on track for a normal – or average – fire season. The faster the desert plateau withers from fewer storms, the more the fire danger climbs.

Already, said Crouch, the Vale District deployed fire crews for nine small wildfires last month.

A fire season hinges on a variety of factors and each year offers an ebb-and-flow connected to elevation, timing and – most important – spring rain. The rains feed the sagebrush and grasses. If or when sagebrush and grasses dry, they become fire fuel.

Fire officials typically look at the grasses, sagebrush and soils to gauge how severe summer blazes may be.  

“Fire ignitions, spread potential and severity are heavily dependent on fire fuel production. Timing and amount of spring moisture are the main drivers of this production and, so far, we are well below average in moisture,” said Mike Pagoaga, fire planner for the Vale District.

The situation now, said Crouch, is a double edged sword.

On one hand, he said, lack of rain means sagebrush “is going to be really dry.”

“But it won’t contribute to a whole lot of grass growth either, so the fuel loads in the grass will be down,” said Crouch.

Summer weather also plays a role.

“It can be really dry, really droughty, but if we don’t have the lightning starts and don’t have the grass growth, we may not see a lot of large fires,” said Crouch.

A final element to the fire season outlook, said Crouch, is people.

“If we add the human-caused fire element to that and it happens on the wrong day, say a strong wind day, just because we don’t have the grass doesn’t mean we won’t get large fires. Sometimes it is a timing thing,” said Crouch.

Crouch said human-caused fires are also already on the uptick.

“That is not normal this time of year,” he said. Crouch said fire crews responded to 17 human-caused fires last year.

Pagoaga said “since 2000, we average a little over 50 fires a year, 13 of which are human-caused.”

Crouch said that because of the pandemic more people are escaping into the great outdoors now, adding another element to the fire risk.

“In the last three years, we have seen an above-average increase in the number of human-caused fires per year,” said Crouch.

Crouch said last year the number of people who used the Vale District for recreation hit a record.

“A lot more people are out there than ever before so we either need to be careful with fire use, get more rain, or both,” said Crouch. While the high desert is drier than normal, there is still hope the situation could change, said Pagoaga.

“Late rains last year pushed the peak fire danger into September,” he said.

Crouch said while it is drier than normal, “that can change quickly and the season outlook remains to be seen.”

“I am hoping our weather pattern will change and we’ll get a few more weather systems come in,” said Crouch.

The 30-day weather outlook isn’t promising.

Joel Tannenholz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boise, said the this month appears to promise below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures.

Still, Tannenholz said forecasting what the weather will be like in two or three months is difficult.

“There are things that can’t be predicted such as thunderstorms. We can’t say today how many we will have or where they will be,” said Tannenholz.

Crouch said he wanted to remind the public to be careful when they head out onto the high desert steppes.

“People need to take heed of this. It has been a dry spring so common sense says the fire danger is higher than normal,” said Crouch.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

Range fire burning out of control east of Juntura

Malheur County fire season in effect, experts provide guidance

UPDATE: Lightning ignites fires in southern Malheur County


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