Fire danger is headed toward the red zone, local officials warn.
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WALLA WALLA — Lack of rain mixed with hot weather are pushing the potential for wildfires into the red zone, forest officials said Thursday.
The fire danger conditions in the southern Blue Mountains are already rated as “extreme” and conditions in the northern Blue Mountains in Oregon and Southeast Washington are “high and expected to go to extreme soon,” said Brian Goff with the Umatilla National Forest.
Goff delivered the long-range outlook during a conference call with reporters on this year’s fire season and preparations being made to meet outbreaks in Oregon, Washington and Idaho during the coming months.
“The late winter and early spring started very dry. We got some rain and cooler temperatures in June but overall the region in a slight drought condition right now,” Goff said.
Grasses and brush have dried out quickly which is why rangelands are experiencing wildfires now and conditions in forested areas are close behind.
“We’re about there for forest fuels,” he said.
The weather forecast calls for above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation, which means there will be a “high danger” for wildfires through August and September, Goff said.
Bret Ruby with the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and Renae Crippen with the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center in La Grande briefed reporters on how agencies are alerted and respond to wildfires when they are reported.
According to Crippen, the Blue Mountain dispatch center is responsible for alerting and directing firefighters in an area covering more than 600 million acres.
“We have a pretty big footprint,” she said.
The main focus is the safety of the firefighters on the ground as they mobilize to deal with a wildfire.
Ruby outlined how federal, state, tribal and other agencies coordinate to fight fires, with the closest available agency to a fire being dispatched first. “If the ODF (Oregon Department of Forestry) is closest, they get dispatched first,” he said.
Brian Goff with the Umatilla National Forest outlined how public-use restrictions are put in place as the fire danger rating rises. In national forests, the restrictions are implemented in three phases, he said.
The first is “phase A” which calls for restrictions on where campfires are allow, when and how chain saws may be used and where smoking is allowed or prohibited.
The next level is “phase B” which increases restrictions on campfires, prohibits chain saw use and also implements off-road travel restrictions.
The final level is “phase C” which bans campfires, off-road travel and sharply limits or bans other activities. That level is not often implemented, but Ruby said “if conditions don’t change, that’s a good probability” that phase C restrictions could go into effect in some areas.
Andy Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8318.