Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

It’s been an up-and-down summer for Oregon fire managers trying to limit the number of wildfires caused by people, but one agency is optimistic about a trend.

The Oregon Department of Forestry, which protects about 16 million acres of public and private forested land across Oregon, announced earlier this week that the number of human-caused wildfires during August was about 10 percent lower than the average total for the month over the last 10 years.

Still, Tom Fields, fire prevention coordinator for the state forestry agency, said a dry start to fire season put Oregon’s state and private forest lands at a disadvantage early on, and Oregonians need to stay vigilant as long as the weather stays dry.

“I think we need to remind people that the risk is still out there,” Fields said Friday.

While Fields and other fire officials emphasize that fire seasons are getting longer and drier, Oregon’s wildfire season typically gets going around the Fourth of July and wraps up in mid-to-late September.

Human activity is one of the most common ways for Oregon wildfires to begin, though Fields said the frequency of the fires and the activities that spark them vary depending on location and management of the forest.

He said portions of the state to the east of the Cascades, which see fewer visitors and more lightning than areas west of the mountains, see about 40 percent of their wildfires start because of human activity. In Southern Oregon, the breakdown is closer to 50 percent.

Fields said ODF’s biggest challenge is people burning piles of debris, even more than unattended campfires or sparks from idling cars in tall grass. So far this year, 99 fires on ODF land have begun from people burning illegally, which can easily spiral into a wildfire during dry conditions.

“The last thing people want is for something they’re doing to get out of hand,” Fields said.

While many of the large fires have taken place outside Central Oregon, the state overall has had a tough wildfire season so far, with about 748,000 acres in the state affected by wildfire. The state experienced dry conditions during April and May, which helped put ODF and other agencies behind the curve before the state’s fire season began in earnest, Fields said.

Before the start of June, ODF saw 100 more fires caused by humans than usual, which prompted concern that the state could be in for a record-breaking fire season, Fields said.

June and July were relatively similar to normal for the state agency, but August, traditionally the heart of Oregon’s wildfire season, brought good news. People were responsible for 138 fires during the month, compared to the 10-year average of 153. Of note: Just two fires during the month began from burning debris, 85 percent less than during a typical August. Fields said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the figure.

“That goes to show that, since we started fire season, we kind of leveled off,” he said.

This matches the trend from Central Oregon’s federally managed land. Kassidy Kern, acting public affairs officer for the Deschutes National Forest, wrote in an email that the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, along with the Crooked River National Grassland and the Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville district, have seen 158 human-caused fires this year, compared to an average of 192.

Fields credited more coordination around fire prevention from state and federal land managers, as well as newer stakeholders like the Oregon Department of Transportation and Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism agency. He noted that working together on management issues during last year’s solar eclipse helped bridge those gaps in 2018. Fields added that this summer’s smoky conditions have kept fire issues top of mind for many Oregonians.

“People are out in smoke every day, and it serves as a reminder,” he said.

Still, Fields said the state is not done with fire season, and encouraged people to remain vigilant to build on the progress seen in August.

“People are under the impression that the fire risk is diminishing, and that’s just not the case,” Fields said.

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