Heavy smoke that blew into the John Day Valley last week from several fires in Central Oregon may be a sign of what is to come as forest officials prepare for elevated fire danger this season.
The Boxcar Fire 1 mile southeast of Maupin, the Jack Knife Fire 5 miles northeast of Kent and the Graham Fire 15 miles north of Sisters near Lake Billy Chinook were all caused by lightning.
By June 25, the Boxcar Fire covered 95,800 acres, the Jack Knife Fire covered 14,700 acres and the Graham Fire covered 2,000 acres. The three fires were about half contained.
The wildfire forecast for the Grant County area this summer is about the same as for the past few years, officials said, as continuing hot and dry conditions are expected in July and August.
Summer temperatures in the Oregon, Washington and Idaho region, gathered by the National Climate Data Center from hundreds of reporting stations, have shown an upward trend over the past 25 years, said John Saltenberger, a fire weather program manager for the Predictive Services department at the Northwest Coordination Center in Portland.
From 1950 to 1995, there were roughly the same number of above-average June to August temperatures in the three-state region as there were below average, he said.
“It was roughly balanced, about what you would expect,” he said. “Then something changed.”
Since 1995, below-average August temperatures were reported only in 1995, 2002 and 2010. Every other year had above-average August temperatures, and 2017 saw the warmest August on record, Saltenberger said.
This May was also one of the warmest on record. The warm and dry conditions led to elevated fire danger in June for much of Oregon, Saltenberger said. Conditions in the John Day area, however, are not as severe yet, he said. The fire danger in the John Day area was average or even below average in May and early June.
“The higher elevations captured more moisture,” he said. “The fire danger is below average because of recent moisture.”
Those conditions will change, he noted. The fire danger is expected to escalate in July and August, with above-average temperatures continuing into September.
“Every data source I look at says this,” he said.
Saltenberger noted that above-average fire danger conditions existed across the region in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and he expects 2018 to be the same.
The Oregon Department of Forestry manages fires on private forest lands in Grant County, which falls within ODF’s John Day Unit in the Central Oregon District.
The district saw 114 fires in 2017, which burned nearly 2,500 acres. The 10-year average is 11,600 acres. Seventy of last year’s fires were human caused, above the 10-year average of 68.
State Forester Peter Daugherty declared the start of fire season in the Central Oregon District on June 1, which initiated restrictions on debris burning and some activities by industrial operations.
“Across the district, spring has brought limited rainfall and right now we are seeing fuel conditions drier than they were at this time last year,” District Forester Mike Shaw said in a June 1 press release. Rain which fell in late May “was really localized, with very little soaking in due to how quickly it came down in many areas.”
John Day Unit Forester Ryan Miller said several small fires had been reported since June 1, including four lightning-caused starts over the June 16-17 weekend.
“They were all under a tenth of an acre,” he said.
As of June 20, more than 200 wildfires were reported on lands protected by ODF across Oregon, burning about 200 acres. More than 80 percent of the fires were human caused.
On the Malheur National Forest, seasonal restrictions on campfires began June 1 and continue through Oct. 31. Campfires must be attended at all times and completely extinguished prior to leaving. Anyone with a campfire outside of a specified developed recreation site must have a tool that serves as a shovel and one gallon of water in their possession.