While several wildfires are still burning across Oregon, including the resurgent Klondike Fire in the state’s southwestern corner, Central Oregon’s wildfire season is drawing to a close.
In many ways, Central Oregon’s fire season was a tale of extremes. For Bend and much of Deschutes County, the fire season has been a comparatively mild one. A year after the Milli Fire erupted in the Deschutes National Forest, prompting evacuation warnings in Sisters and blanketing much of the county in smoke, fewer than 2,200 acres burned in the forest through the first nine months of 2018.
According to data from the Central Oregon Fire Management Service, an interagency service that responds to fires across the region’s public lands, that total is 28 percent of the 10-year average.
“It’s not very often where we go through a year where we don’t have at least one (incident management) team on the Deschutes,” said Alex Robertson, fire and aviation staff officer for the fire management service.
However, just an hour or two north, the story is radically different. Areas north and east of Madras were hit with the worst fire season many residents had ever seen, one that destroyed fields and homes and claimed the life of one Dufur resident.
“It was one for the books, I’ll tell you that,” said Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill.
According to data from the fire management service, more than 365,000 acres within its coverage area burned this summer — more than five times more than the 10-year average.
However, almost all of the devastation occurred on the Bureau of Land Management’s Prineville District, which includes 1.65 million acres of land, primarily across the eastern and northern portions of Central Oregon. In total, 360,000 acres of public and private land burned within the Prineville district boundaries, according to Jeff Kitchens, field manager for the BLM’s Prineville District.
“There are people who have lived on the Lower Deschutes for 50 years, and they don’t remember it ever burning this much,” Kitchens said.
Kitchens described the summer as “precedent-setting” because the fire season in the area started early, ended late and had more consistent fire activity than a typical fire season.
Kitchens said a dry winter and spring, coupled with a lot of plant growth in 2017, led to dry, abundant fuels in the region. A couple of massive lightning storms in June and August, along with more human-caused fires than usual, created a series of devastating wildfires along the Deschutes and John Day river corridors.
Robertson said fires grew quickly in dry grass fields, and the shifts in elevation found in the river corridors made the fires a challenge to fight.
Magill added that Wasco County received more than 3,700 911 calls about fires over a 17-day period during July and August. He said the north-central Oregon county saw three fires — the Boxcar Fire, the Long Hollow Fire and the Substation Fire — that exceeded 30,000 acres. In particular, Magill called the Substation Fire, which ripped through grass and dry farmland in July, burning more than 100,000 acres and claiming the life of Dufur resident John Ruby, one of the most dangerous he’s ever seen.
“I’ve been around some pretty aggressive fires, but that Substation Fire was probably No. 2,” Magill said.
Magill said more than a dozen homes and other structures burned in the fires, and he estimated that farmers in the region lost $20 million in burned wheat and other grains. Still, both Magill and Kitchens credited how the community came together to help and support firefighters in the area.
“It brought people together who might not have come together otherwise,” Magill said.
Despite similarly dry conditions, the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests saw relatively few large fires. Robertson credited the fire management service success in quashing fires before they got large. During lightning storms, which can cause dozens of fire starts in a short period, Robertson said agencies have to sort through a lot of fire reports to prioritize the most critical ones. He credited the diligence and organization of the fire crews on the ground for preventing a larger incident.
“I’d never say that we were lucky, but we had good organization and took care of the problems we encountered,” Robertson said.
In Bend, arguably the biggest impact from fire season was the smoke from fires that blew in from other parts of the state and the rest of the Pacific Northwest. Air quality data from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality shows that Bend had 12 days that were considered unhealthy for sensitive groups during the summer, primarily during the middle and end of August.
Katherine Benenati, public affairs specialist for Oregon DEQ, said this year saw less severe impacts from wildfire smoke than last summer, when smoke from the Milli Fire canceled events and forced people to breathe unhealthy air for several weeks. This year, much of the smoke came from large fires in Southern Oregon, northern Washington and even British Columbia. However, she noted that this year is the latest in a trend of bad smoke years across Oregon.
“This last five-year stretch has been worse than any other 5-year stretch that came before it,” Benenati said.
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