The bad news is this is shaping up to be a tough fire season, with grasses drying out at least a month earlier than normal.
The good news is the U.S. Forest Service’s gorge firefighting crew hasn’t felt the effects of sequestration and is at the same 10-person strength as last year.
“We have responded to 16 fires so far this year and in an average year we would’ve had six or seven by this time,” said Darren Kennedy, fire management officer at the U.S. Forest Service’s Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area office.
He wasn’t one for predictions, but did say, “I think we’re going to have a busy season, based on the evidence at hand.”
The first fire of the season was April 26 in Wishram, which is traditionally the first place to dry out and catch fire. More typically, the first Wishram fire happens in mid- to late-May.
As for nature’s protection against wildfire — precipitation — “we’re still well below normal,” Kennedy said.
In fact, as of June 25, the rainfall at the Dallesport airport is exactly half of average, said Marilyn Lohmann, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Pendleton. It stood at 3.69 inches, and should be at 7.38 inches.
It’s been an odd year, with typically wetter months getting less rain than normal, and typically dryer months getting more rain than normal, she said.
Across the river in Wasco County, rainfall is on track to be two and a half inches below normal, which is 14.6 inches, said Kim McCullough, office manager at the Oregon State University Extension Office in The Dalles.
That’s assuming the rainfall in June through August stays at historically normal levels. If it doesn’t, then the year’s rainfall is going to be even lower than normal. The extension office measures rain on a crop year, which runs from September through August.
Even though it’s a substantial dip below normal, McCullough said, “people unfortunately feel like, ‘We’ve got a lot of rain.’”
The snow water equivalent for the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes basin is listed as less than 50 percent of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Snow water equivalent is the amount of water contained in the snowpack.
As for manpower, Kennedy said, “We’re staffed the same way we have been. We’ve got one 10-person crew and three engines and that’s the way we’ve been staffed for the last three years, so as far as sequestration goes, it hasn’t affected us here locally. I do know that’s not the case nationally.”
Congress could not agree on spending cuts by March 1, which triggered $85 billion in spending cuts across federal agencies. Those cuts are referred to as sequestration.
“I get a budget from our regional office and it was down a little bit from last year, but not enough to where I had to cut any positions,” Kennedy said.
“I think that’s pretty much the same across the board in this region,” he said.
“One of the good things about the Forest Service is that they’ve got, as I understand it, some latitude to pick where the cuts are going to be made and this region decided that fire was not one of the areas that is going to be cut,” he said.
The fire crew is available for off-forest dispatch, so for half the fire season they’re gone on large fire assignments elsewhere, Kennedy said.
The crew almost always has two engines staffed in the scenic area, he said. One engine is kept in Hood River and the crew itself and the other two engines are stationed in Cascade Locks. When the crews are not fighting fire, they are doing work thinning fire fuel, which entails falling trees and stacking brush for burning later.
“The piled up brush sits on the ground for about a year and then we go and burn them the following fall,” Kennedy said.
“They burn a lot better if you wait awhile and by burning better that eliminates more fuel and generates less smoke,” he said.
The gorge is fortunate to not have the same concerns as other areas about fire fuels. “Some of it has to do with fire history, a lot of it has to do with active management.” One buffer against fuel creation here, for example, is grazing, he said.
The range of fire locations is also notable this year. “We’ve had fires as far west as Stevenson, which is really unusual this time of year,” he said.
And while a lightning-caused fire burned a structure and some 350 acres in Wishram, such fires are actually fairly rare in the gorge, he said. He estimated he’s seen fewer than 15 lightning-caused fires in the 21 years he’s been stationed in the gorge.
“Everything else is human caused,” he said. That can range from cigarettes tossed out windows to burn piles that get away from people to car crashes that start roadside fires.
Another factor in the dryness of fuels is the low elevation of the gorge. Grass grows sooner in lower elevations, and also dies out sooner, he said.
The cheat grass found in Wishram and Dallesport catches fire every year, he said.