Local government

Local BLM district gears up for a potentially busy fire season

VALE – Each year when Al Crouch is asked what kind of wildfire season to expect in the region, he pulls out his stock answer.

“Ask me in October,” replies Crouch, the fire mitigation specialist for the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Fire and how to prevent it are key components to his job.

Yet Crouch, a longtime BLM firefighter, knows predicting a wildfire season is a dice roll.

“We’ve had some years where we had tremendous grass growth and then it’s crickets. You just never know,” he said.

Crouch, along with BLM fire planner Marisa Carney and fire monitoring officer Brent Meisinger, last week provided their estimate for the approaching fire season. All three said the conditions are forming that could result in a busy summer.

“There are a lot of variables. But grasses in lower elevations are curing faster and earlier than normal, which is concerning,” said Meisinger.

Such grasses can fuel rapid growth in a wildfire.

Statewide, forecasters expect an average year with a higher risk developing later in the summer. That was one of the key messages at a news conference of state wildfire officials conducted Wednesday, May 15.

“We are likely to see more aggressive and incredibly difficult to control wildfire conditions in the late summer months,” said Doug Grafe, Gov. Tina Kotek’s wildfire programs adviser.

“The biggest thing we can do is be prepared,” said Crouch.

A fire season hinges on weather. Every year, thunderstorms roll over Malheur County on a regular basis and trigger lightning strikes. Yet if those thunderstorms contain a lot of moisture, fire starts are scarce.

If the right conditions line up such as dry thunderstorms, high winds and extremely dry conditions, a big fire is a strong possibility.

“A lot hinges on those storms and human activity,” said Crouch.

Human-caused fires continue to plague the BLM Vale district, said Crouch.

BLM stats show that in In 2023, 41 fires ignited in the Vale district. Of those 41, 17 were human-caused. Human-caused fires consumed more than 18,000 acres of BLM and private land.

“It could be an active year with the possibility of an early fire season because of the grass loads. It is all dependent on human actions and storms,” said Carney.

Crouch said the 2023 fire season was “a little bit of an anomaly.”

“We lifted fire restrictions last year earlier than ever before. But now we are getting back to a more normal fire season pattern,” he said.

The Vale BLM District will be poised in a few weeks to deploy up to 150 firefighters – including a 19-member Hotshot detachment and five 20-man Snake River Valley crews. The agency has 11 trucks, two bulldozers along with helicopters and single-seat air attack planes that fly out of the Ontario Municipal Airport.

The possible shortage of firefighters was another key topic during the state news conference but right now the BLM doesn’t face that, said Carney.

“We do a lot of recruiting at high schools and colleges and through our Women in Fire program,” said Carney.

Crouch said the BLM also can tap area contractors for extra help and local fire departments if needed.

Crouch also noted BLM now has access to a new 5,500 water tank placed on private property along Interstate 84 about 13 miles north of Ontario.

Helicopters can dip into the tank to load water when working on a fire.

The area is prone to wildfires, said Crouch.

“It will allow us to immediately engage the helicopters and will provide a fast turn-around to fill engines,” said Crouch.

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

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