By Dylan J. Darling • The Bulletin

An early start and lots of lightning made for a long, busy wildfire season this year in Central Oregon and around the Northwest.

The 6,908-acre Two Bulls Fire, which started June 7 on private timberland close to Bend, prompted evacuations and brought back memories of the devastating Awbrey Hall Fire of 1990, which leveled 22 homes.

“That sort of started our season,” Dan O’Brien, manager of the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, said last week. The center coordinates firefighting for state and federal firefighting crews in Oregon and Washington.

Over the past five years Oregon and Washington have averaged 3,354 fires per year which burned an average of 514,359 acres per year, according to annual reports by the center.

During the 2014 wildfire season, the Northwest was the top national priority for firefighters a record-setting 43 days, according to statistics from the center. In all there were more than 3,200 reported fires this year in Oregon and Washington. The fires burned more than 1.25 million acres, with more than 842,000 acres charred in Oregon and over 413,000 acres blackened in Washington.

“It was just a very busy season,” O’Brien said.

A busy fire season can mean an expensive one. Fighting fires around the Northwest cost more than $446 million this year spread across state and federal agencies, according to center statistics, and fire officials still have more accounting left to do.

The Two Bulls Fire alone cost the Oregon Department of Forestry about $5.7 million to fight. In all, wildland firefighting cost the state about $47 million this year, triggering an insurance policy for the second year in a row.

For people in Bend, the Two Bulls Fire caused an early scare because the fire was close to the city. It prompted the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office to order the evacuation of nearly 200 homes on the west side of Bend. Cause of the fire remains under investigation, according to Rod Nichols, a Department of Forestry spokesman. The Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon State Police, U.S. Forest Service and the Bend Police Department are all involved in the ongoing investigation. While the fire was still burning in June the sheriff’s office announced it was human-caused and likely arson. A more than $40,000 reward remains for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.

After the Two Bulls Fire, which burned a small piece of the Deschutes National Forest, the remaining wildfires in Central Oregon this year primarily burned in the Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management and the Ochoco National Forest, according to Jean Nelson-Dean, spokeswoman for the Deschutes National Forest.

Fires in the Ochoco National Forest, headquartered in Prineville, included the South Fork and Waterman complexes of fires. The 66,179-acre South Fork Complex is still smoldering and the 12,520-acre Waterman Complex caused evacuation orders for two dozen homes along U.S. Highway 26. The Waterman Complex also prompted the Oregon Department of Transportation to close the highway for a week in July.

“It was a big year for the Ochocos,” said Patrick Lair, a spokesman for the Ochoco National Forest.

The wildfires fires around and close to Central Oregon put up smoke that sullied the air in Bend and other towns in the region.

Data from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality show there were 15 days of poor air quality brought by wildfire smoke between June 1 and Oct. 2, said Mark Bailey, eastern region air quality manager for the agency in Bend. There were also 15 such days in Sisters and 24 in Prineville.

While rains late last month triggered the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to loosen fire restrictions, fire season might not be done just yet in Central Oregon. The National Weather Service is calling for a warm, dry spell lasting for at least the next week. Fire officials warn people to be careful with campfires, stoves and other potential wildfire starters when out in the woods.

“There is still a potential (for wildfire) there for sure,” Lair said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

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