Southern Oregon agencies gearing up with added resources as fire season begins

Southern Oregon — Fire season in Southern Oregon officially begins on Wednesday, and fire agencies across the Rogue Valley are preparing.

By Kevin McNamara | | Tuesday, May 31st 2022

The Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest district now has 26 fire engines staffed seven days a week, which is up by three from last year. That’s in addition to extended dispatch hours and eight other supervisor and support positions, marking its largest increase in capacity in over twenty years.

“I can’t promise you that we’re not going to have large fires here, so what I can promise you and the direction that I’ve given all of my folks. We will leave no doubt that we did everything possible to put fires out this summer,” said Tyler McCarty, ODF Southwest Oregon District Forester.

The extremely dry winter had officials concerned we could be heading for a catastrophic fire season, but things turned for the better once the calendar hit spring and a stretch of precipitation helped increase snowpacks and lake levels.

“We’re always having the potential for large fires in our area in the summer months. This year, we’re all feeling a little more of a reprieve given the late precipitation and the weather that we’ve received. Any day that we have cooler weather and moisture this time of year is one less burn day in my little simple view,” said Merv George, Forest Supervisor for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Agencies also have a new resource in the firefighting effort, known as an immediate response. It allows them to pre-position strike teams before an emergency conflagration is declared, getting them to the scene of a fire much faster.

“Here’s something that we have found very valuable, especially in the last year: it’s when you have resources that can get to a fire quickly and you can catch them when they’re small and they won’t be potentially as large as a fire that you can’t get there,” George said.

Still, foresters and firefighters can’t be sure the worst won’t come to pass. There were over 75 days last summer in which Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest was in the maximum level of fire danger.

“If you get a trifecta, which is 100-degree weather, single-digit relative humidity and east winds, that fire is going to move. We’ve seen it happen,” George said.

Those additional resources could prove crucial in the months ahead. Unlike Southern Oregon, much of the west did not receive significant rainfall this spring.

Southern Oregon firefighters are currently assisting on fires in New Mexico and even as far away as Florida, and George warns that in the future, those national resources may not come back around even if they’re desperately needed.

“There’s not an unlimited amount of firefighting resources. Areas like ours which have more than trees than people don’t tend to compete very well when other parts of the world are on fire that have more people and resources,” he said.

Fire officials are asking the public to be vigilant, as on average about 70% of wildfires are human-caused. Emergency management systems have received an upgrade since the disastrous events of the Almeda Fire, when many received no warning at all that they were in danger.

However, that’s still no guarantee that an evacuation alert will go out in time if a fire is moving fast enough.

“As always we do our best to coordinate with the incident command, our law and fire partners. But as we can see, depending on conditions, fire behavior can change,” said Alison Green, spokeswoman for the Office of the Oregon State Fire Marshal.

“But, there are times when fire, and when any disaster, can move without being able to send an alert quickly enough.”