After two difficult summers of near constant wildfire and its accompanying smoke and haze, Central Oregonians are breathing easier in 2019.

Cooler weather and regular downpours this year compared to the previous two fire seasons have helped to slow the rapid spread of wildfires when they occur, according to Alex Robertson, fire and aviation staff officer for Central Oregon Fire Management Service.

“In previous years we were hot at night and hot during the day — that caused fires to grow quickly,” said Robertson.

With smoke-free skies and better weather, Bend’s tour companies have reported increased business this year and locals have been flocking to popular leisure and recreation destinations. Worries among Oregonians that wildfires and smoke would become the “new norm” have also been allayed for now.

Fire crews regroup

For those who fight fires, this summer has been an opportunity to regroup. A year ago the U.S. had 30,000 personnel working dozens of wildfires, mainly in the western states, said Robertson. The current number of committed firefighters currently stands at just 7,500, including 350 in Central Oregon, he said.

Aircraft, personnel and heavy equipment unavailable in the past due to stretched resources have been readily available this year, allowing for quicker and more effective response times to the wildfire flare-ups.

Modern technology has also helped — the Oregon Department of Forestry has been using specialty aircraft equipped with heat sensors to aid in early detection of wildfires. The aircraft, contracted by Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control, detected four fires in remote locations of Central Oregon on Sunday.

“Looking at the location and fuel types where those fires were detected, it’s not a good feeling to imagine what they could have been,” said Mike Shaw, Eastern Oregon area director for the forestry department.

Human-caused fires — from abandoned campfires, drag chains on trucks or faulty brake systems — are fewer in number this year thanks to the milder weather, said Robertson.

“We don’t have the same conditions as we had before,” said Robertson. “We have seen some abandoned fires, but they are not spreading.”

Fires sparked by natural causes such as lightning strikes have been slowed by steady rainfall and cloud cover. Fires rarely spread more than half an acre before crews can put them out, said Robertson.

Outdoorsy types rejoice

Smoke-free air across the region has been a popular talking point among Bendites this summer, with locals enjoying clear skies upon visits to the Cascade Lakes, the Deschutes River and other recreation areas that last year were consumed in choking haze.

“We did a family trip to Cultus Lake recently and it was amazing — the clear skies, the clear water and the ability to go on trail runs,” said Kevney Dugan, president and CEO of Visit Bend, the city’s tourism authority. “It has been refreshing. Everyone is more upbeat and not worried about being outside for too long.”

The air quality in Bend this year has seen zero days below healthy levels as indicated by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Last year Bend had eight days when the air quality fell below healthy levels and 15 such days in 2017, according to Greg Svelund, spokesperson for the Oregon DEQ.

The better air quality has also been good for business. In July and August last year local outfitters were forced to cancel mountain biking, rafting and other adventure trips and the Bend Park & Recreation District canceled day camps during the worst of the smoky days.

“It became too uncomfortable for our staff to continue working outside,” said Drew Jackson, Mt. Bachelor’s director of marketing and communications. “In the absence of smoke this summer, Mt. Bachelor has been able to operate as business as usual.”

But Robertson warns that with almost two months of fire season left, conditions can change with just a few days of dry hot weather. He reminds residents to take precautions, clear yards of fallen branches and dry fuel, and take care when putting out campfires.

Simply dousing a campfire with water is not enough, Robertson said. The fire pit needs to be stirred with a shovel to ensure that water penetrates and cools the entire fire pit.

“Depending on what the weather does in the remainder of August and September will determine where we go for the rest of the season,” said Robertson. “There are still locations where fires can grow quickly.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, mkohn@bendbulletin.com

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