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Regional drought conditions bring early fire risk to area, especially central Oregon

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Brian Bull
/
KLCC
The sun burns through the smoke of a controlled burn outside Eugene, Oregon.

Lingering and historic drought conditions across Central Oregon have moved up the timeline for wildfire risk. Officials are urging people to be extra cautious.

In Oregon alone, there are seven counties already experiencing their driest 2-year period ever, in a drought that’s continued since Fall 2019. Spring is also expected to be drier than normal, despite the recent “atmospheric river.”

Eric Wise, a fire weather meteorologist of the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, said Central Oregon is at the “above normal” wildfire risk category.

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A slide shared during a drought briefing shows central Oregon at the same significant wildfire risk level as parts of the southwest and Florida come May.

“Our fire season doesn’t really get going usually until the middle part of June. So our concern for May is more about backyard burning and project fires that might escape, especially on dry and windy days.

“So we aren’t expecting a lot of naturally-occurring fires to get going, but just are concerned about the dryness of the fuels around the ground.”

Wise added that there are fallen trees, branches, and other heavy fuels that are also very dry. That could make homeowner’s debris burns and fire crews’ prescribed burns tricky if safeguards aren’t in place.

While many parts of Oregon are experiencing record drought conditions, this year’s wildfire season may not be as bad as the previous two. This includes 2020, which was designated the worst wildfires season in the state’s recorded history.

“2020 was a pretty bad year, but it actually started out not that noteworthy,” Wise told KLCC. “That very strong wind event that we got over Labor Day weekend was what really propelled that into a record season.

“Last year we were actually quite a bit busier in terms of the number of fires, but we never had that sort of an extreme wind event that pushed the fire sizes as big as they got two years back.”

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A slide shared during a drought briefing show's Oregon's reservoirs below normal levels (green line).

Wise did say the region – especially Central Oregon – is experiencing low reservoir levels and drier than normal conditions, so there is potential for another active wildfire season this year. He shared his remarks at a Pacific Northwest drought briefing this week.

Copyright @2022, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.