Cooler climate pushes back the start of wildfire season

Hadley Jeffries, Vale District of the Bureau of Land Management hotshot crew member, talks about the upcoming fire season at the federal office in Vale. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

VALE – A wetter spring will delay this year’s wildfire season as the region is headed for what appears to be a more normal season.

The overall fire danger for Bureau of Land Management ground in Malheur County remains low, said Al Crouch, fire mitigation/education specialist for the Vale District of the BLM.

“Here locally we are still in pretty good shape. The recent cooler weather conditions are slowing the start to our fire season,” said Crouch.

Now, Crouch, said all indications are for an average fire season.

“It still remains to be seen and we’ll have to see how much moisture we get over the next three weeks,” said Crouch.

Crouch said, though, even an average fire season typically means between 50 and 60 fires. Those fires vary in size but between 15 and 20 are usually human caused, he said.

“We had 17 human-caused fires in 2021 that burned BLM lands,” he said.

Most of the fires triggered by humans, he said, can be traced to equipment mishaps.

“That’s followed by debris burning and other causes such as fireworks,” said Crouch.

Jess Tolman, chief of the Vale Fire and Ambulance, said there is no way to gauge how severe the fire season will be.

“Ask me at the end of the season. We might get a wet summer. It is just hard to predict,” he said.

Crouch said area wildfires are becoming more severe.

“Here locally, the major driver behind the increase in the severity is invasive grasses, like cheat and medusahead,” said Crouch.

Cheat grass is native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa and is a persistent nuisance in large portions of the intermountain West. The impact of the weed is especially acute in sagebrush steppe ecosystems.

Medusahead is another invasive weed that is destructive to rangeland and sagebrush. Medusahead roots grow nearly year-around and suck moisture from the soil. Medusahead seeds also have a higher growth rate than native grass. When large swaths of land are covered in cheatgrass and medusahead and the weeds dry out in hot conditions, the area becomes a vast stretch of kindling for lightning strikes.

Crouch said climate change also plays a role in wildfire severity. Invasive weeds and changes in the climate mean a greater focus is placed on the rehabilitation of scorched ground after a blaze.

“We put a lot of effort into it,” he said.

That effort includes spraying, reseeding, erosion control and replanting, he said, to reduce invasive weeds.

“Years ago, our fire season didn’t start until July and that is not necessarily the case now. So, part of it is weather and part of it is cheat grass,” said Crouch.

Now the focus for the BLM – as part of National Wildfire Awareness Month – is on prevention and tips to protect homes from wildfires, said Crouch.

“The time to prepare is now. It’s not just about wildfire. We get a lot of fires in the mixed agriculture zone,” said Crouch.

Crouch pointed to a wildfire at the start of the new year in Colorado as a case in point regarding how blazes can crawl out from the range and into residential areas.

The fire in Superior, Colorado, destroyed nearly 1,000 homes in a suburban area near Denver. The blaze, whipped up by high winds, consumed neighborhoods between Denver and Boulder.

“A lot of those homes were not abutted to rangeland,” said Crouch.

Crouch said if a homeowner lives within a mile of natural vegetation, they should consider specific home defense techniques to prevent wildfire damage.

Some of those tips include clearing areas around a home of leaves, pine needles, and anything that can burn from decks, porches and patios.

Homeowners should also inspect around their house and remove anything within 30 feet that can burn.

Crouch said BLM officials still encountered too many unattended or abandoned campfires in 2021.

“Fortunately, we were lucky last year and none of those started wildfires. Many were discovered through law enforcement and fire prevention patrols and mitigated before they became a problem,” said Crouch.

Crouch said the BLM needs help from the public to stamp out unattended campfires.

“Make sure your campfires are cold and wet before leaving them. Drown your fire, mix with dirt, drown again and feel for heat,” said Crouch.

Crouch said leaving a campfire unattended or abandoned can net a camper a fine.

News tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at pat@malheur enterprise.com.

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