Wildfire forecast: Sparks to fly early and often

Continued drought and anticipated El Niño could make 2014 a bad fire year

By Lily Raff McCaulou / The Bulletin

PORTLAND — Wildfire season is likely to arrive in Central Oregon a few weeks earlier than usual, and it could be more intense, too.

That was the forecast announced this week from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.

The epicenter of the 2014 wildfire season is likely to be Northern California and Southern Oregon, where the current snowpack is as low as 16 percent of its long-term average for this time of year, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency that tracks snowpack.

That means trees and downed wood — fuel for potential fires — are already drying out.

Farther north, around Mount Hood, the snowpack is 79 percent.

In Central Oregon, the snowpack sits at 53 percent.

Despite above-average precipitation since mid-February, most of Oregon is still in the throes of a multi-year drought.

Meanwhile, temperature data from the coast of South America indicates that an El Niño pattern could develop by late summer, said John Saltenberger, a meteorologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. El Niño is a warm current that develops in the Pacific Ocean every few years and triggers a series of consequences such as increased rain and warmer temperatures.

Past records show that Central Oregon tends to get hotter during an El Niño year, according to Saltenberger.

Increased storm activity is another characteristic of El Niño. In the summer, that could mean more lightning.

On average, about half of all wildfires in the Pacific Northwest are caused by humans, including accidents and arson, Saltenberger said.

But the biggest, costliest fires tend to be the ones ignited by lightning.

That’s because human-caused fires usually begin near roads and other developed areas, which makes them easier to reach and contain, said Tom Knappenberger, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Still, lots of lightning doesn’t necessarily translate into lots of fires.

In 2013, Saltenberger said, there was almost four times as much lightning as usual in the region. But it sparked an almost average number of fires.

“Very heavy lightning activity tends to bring moisture with it, which offsets some of the fires,” he said.

In 2013, 4,389 reported wildfires burned 503,993 acres in Oregon and Washington. Those fires cost a total of $234,793,690 to contain.

In the last decade, Oregon and Washington have had an average of 3,877 fires burning 452,039 acres each year. In the past six years, an annual average of $153,795,649 has been spent battling wildfires.

Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman for the interagency center in Portland, recommended that homeowners work this month to clear shrubs and firewood away from their homes. She also advised people to check local fire restrictions before entering public lands.

“We always should be concerned about wildfires in Oregon and Washington,” she said.

—Reporter: 541-410-9207; lraff@bendbulletin.com