Ore. Fire Season Opens Wet and Cool

June 3, 2005

The fire season opened cool and damp around parts of Oregon on Wednesday, after early fears that the winter drought would produce a severe wildfire season.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Department of Forestry is shifting money from wildfire insurance premiums to increasing resources devoted to catching wildfires while they are small.

Fire districts on the east side of the Cascade Range covering Sisters, Bend, La Pine and Klamath Falls areas declared the start of their fire seasons at the traditional June 1 date, but other areas probably won’t join them for two or three weeks, said Bill Lafferty, fire program manager for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

The start of fire season requires logging companies to have firefighting equipment on hand, and imposes restrictions on outdoor burning.

Unusually wet conditions in April and May are expected to continue at least through the first half of June, pushing back the start of the hot and dry conditions that make for high fire danger, Lafferty said.

“We can write off an early fire season,” Lafferty said. “We’ll probably have a late start through much of the state.”

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland forecast noted that in past drought years, when rainfall in April and May exceeded 150 percent, as it did this year, fire season was significantly less than average.

“Earlier predictions of a severe fire season seem to have lessened with this late rain we getting,” said center spokeswoman Jaree Mills. “It looks like most of the Northwest should have a pretty standard fire season, with a few exceptions up in north central Washington.”

The weak El Nino climate condition that produced the dry winter for the Northwest has ended, but warm water in the Pacific Ocean may produce a wetter summer than usual through August, the coordination center forecast said.

A fire danger forecast based on five climate models produced by the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station shows the Northeastern corner of Oregon, including the Blue and Wallowa mountains, with a higher probability of fires than the rest of the state.

A major factor driving the forecast is the lingering effects of drought, said Ronald P. Neilson, a bioclimatologist for the Forest Service based at Oregon State University.

The Oregon Department of Forestry, which is responsible for fighting wildfires on private timberlands and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands, has taken out its annual insurance policy to cover unusually high firefighting costs, said Lafferty.

Pending legislative approval, the department wants to raise the deductible from last year’s $15 million to $25 million. The insurance would cover the next $25 million in costs. The $2.5 million saved on the premium would be spent on boosting their ability to catch wildfires before they get big.

The department hopes to use the money to move extra helicopters, air tankers and ground crews into place when a lighting storm is expected, so they will be ready to pounce, preventing fires from getting big and costing much more money, Lafferty said.

Since 1984, firefighting costs have exceeded $25 million two years, and $15 million six years.

The bill calls for timberland owners to increase their firefighting obligation to $15 million, up from $10 million in the past. In return, the state would pay the next $10 million until the insurance policy kicks in. The state and landowners would split the cost of the insurance. Previously, landowners paid the full premium cost.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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