The January wildfire season?

The January 2014 Shingle and Falcon fires provided a smoky haze over the otherwise blue Pacific Ocean. The two fires, near Arch Cape along the Oregon Coast, burned more than 300 acres in a rare wintertime forest fire. – Photo by Jon Long, ODF Astoria Forester.

Forest fires in January? Go figure.

During September we saw rainy, wet weather – and like most Oregonians, I mentally prepared for that cool nine-month, wet-and-damp season that typically lingers until July.

Then for the past four months, someone turned off the spigot. Just last night while walking the dog, I felt a spitting shower and noted that I should dust off the umbrella today. Nope. The sidewalks are dry again.

A stubborn high-pressure zone off the coast is to blame, they say.

Skiers like me are complaining: Hoodoo and Mount Ashland ski areas never opened, the latter reporting a whopping two-inch base. Mount Hood and Mount Bachelor are not so much bragging about their high-elevation snow as they are explaining that it’s better than nothing.

If it were just a regular dry winter, we’d be worried about having only 60 to 70 percent of normal snowpack. Renee Magyar, the communications manager for Sustainable Northwest published a blog last week that includes the USDA SNOWTEL map reporting snow and water equivalents around the state, showing less than 25 percent of normal in some areas and most with less than 50 percent.

Her piece relays anxiety for the ranchers and farmers with whom SNW partners on projects. Low stream flows will affect fisheries if we don’t get better snow and rain.

Clearly, in the Northwest where rain and snow is as normal and plentiful as sand on the beach, many things don’t go well when the precipitation doesn’t come.

But for me, wildfire in Oregon’s forests during January is plain nuts! Meshuga! Loco! Ridiculous! Crazy! 
During the summer, I expect the Oregon Department of Forestry’s daily Fire Update each day. Then, as fall rains begin, they put that report to bed and we don’t see it again until July. To my surprise, they began issuing it again a few days ago.

News outlets are reporting the Shingle Mill, the Falcon and 1, 2, 3 Complex fires in northwest Oregon. In the southwest, the 125-acre Alder Creek Fire is burning. Near Coos Bay two fires called the Bone Creek Complex are burning more than 300 acres. A fire is reported near Gates in the Santiam Canyon. All these areas are generally well-watered or covered by snow by this time of year.

Fires have ignited mostly from long-smoldering slash piles. Persistent, dry east winds have caused fires to spot outside containment lines. Dialog about fire is what we expect in the media during the summer and fall, but not the dead of winter.

If too little rain adversely affects ranchers and farmers, it will also likely affect winter tree planting. After harvest, trees are planted within two years; it’s the law. Winter is best for tree planting, because tree seedlings are dormant and getting them into the moist, cool ground offers trees the best chance to slowly wake up during the spring. By being planted in the winter they are likely to put on a good growth spurt during their first year. But that depends on cool rainy weather, and if forests are dry enough to burn, then new tree seedlings may struggle, too.

That being the case, there’s little chance we will see these areas with no trees in the future. The Oregon Forest Practices Act requires replanting, but it also requires that trees be “free to grow” within five years. If they are not successful after this season, they will be planted again later.

Let’s hope for much more rain and snow. This sunny weather we’ve seen makes me a little nervous.

Dave Kvamme
Director of Communications


9755 SW Barnes Rd., Suite 210        
Portland, OR 97225        
Phone: 971-673-2944        
Fax: 971-673-2946

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