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Drought likely to move start of fire season up in Douglas County

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Milepost 97 Fire — 2019 Top Photos

Flames rage last July to Interstate 5 south of Canyonville, Oregon, during the Milepost 97 Fire. The Douglas Forest Protective Association anticipates an early start to the 2020 fire season.

Douglas Forest Protective Association officials aren’t ready to pull the proverbial trigger on starting fire season in Douglas County. Not yet, anyway.

But it will happen soon, DFPA spokesman Kyle Reed said this past week. Typically, fire season in the county, he said, starts around the middle of June, but drought conditions across Oregon and the Pacific Northwest will likely move that to a date before the annual average. Jackson and Josephine counties, for example, opened their fire seasons on Friday.

Coupled with precautions that might have to be taken due to the current coronavirus pandemic, the upcoming fire season — whenever that winds up starting — puts the local agency and others in uncharted territory with an added sense of urgency for people to take precautions for fire prevention.

“We’re always under the premise that the best fire to fight is the one that never happens,” Reed said. “The combination of dry weather and drought conditions are cause for concerns, and adding in forecasts that this summer is supposed to be hotter than most adds to that. Now, add in some of the steps we have to take with the virus, and that certainly complicates things.”

A fire-season designation makes campfires allowed only in designated areas or on private land with permission from the landowner. It also prohibits open burning and the use of fireworks, among other things.

Earlier this month, the Oregon Water Resources Department released its water conditions report, which outlined how mountain precipitation levels in much of Southwestern Oregon was 66% below average and weather forecasts going into the end of June are calling for a drier climate with hotter temperatures.

That’s in stark contrast to the 2019 fire season, where precipitation levels were 105% of average in the April leading into the summer. That paved way to a rather tame fire season highlighted by the Milepost 97 Fire south of Canyonville. Even though the blaze torched more than 13,000 acres, it never seriously threatened structures or caused casualties.

What will constitute a threat this fire season is still to be determined. Current mandates under Gov. Kate Brown’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” order have closed all state parks and camping areas, and those restrictions have been extended until at least May 25, according to Oregon Parks and Recreation. Bureau of Land Management campgrounds are also closed, though some coastal beaches remain open. Disbursed camping, however, remains open, and all Douglas County parks reopened Friday under what county officials said were strict social-distancing guidelines.

Not having people out and about reduces campfires and the risk of wildfire, though it’s unclear when those state parks and BLM sites will reopen. Complicating those matters, however, are the current social distancing and sanitation regulations that Reed said will likely remain in place in the summer to slow the spread of the highly-contagious COVID-19, a respiratory illness which causes mild to moderate symptoms in many but has killed more than 66,000 nationwide.

Reed said discussions with agencies within Oregon and out of state — with most discussions starting near the middle of March when numbers from the current pandemic began rising — centered around creating fire camps that were spread out into smaller units and not bunched together with an emphasis put on sanitizing camps and sleeping areas. Additionally, camp meals could lean toward pre-packaged foods rather than hot meals, he said.

He also said for firefighters on the front lines, groups could be reduced to three to four people bunched together instead of larger groups of people like in typical fire seasons.

Reed said those are potential strategies that haven’t been solidified yet, adding that DFPA has been afforded the luxury of pre-planning months in advance of fire season.

“If all of these precautions would have kicked off right in the middle of fire season, we’d have been in a tough spot and would have been left scrambling,” Reed said. “We’re lucky enough that we had a couple of month’s headway. We don’t have all of the answers yet, but at least this has given us all the chance to prepare.”

Reed said a declaration on fire season could depend on this weekend’s weather, where forecasts called for rain through Sunday. Through Saturday, the National Weather Service in Medford reported Roseburg had received close to one-half inch of rain in the past 72 hours.

Jon Mitchell is a page designer. photographer and writer for The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4214, or by email at jmitchell@nrtoday.com. Or follow him on Twitter @byJonMitchell.

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