Fire officials stay on high alert following first rain in 71 days

Sean C. Morgan

While mild weather and a little rain dropped the fire danger from “extreme” to “high” over the weekend, the Willamette National Forest has banned all campfires.

Thus far, the Sweet Home area has escaped a major fire, though about 1.5 acres has been burned so far this year by smaller fires.

As of Aug. 23, the Willamette National Forest banned fires forest-wide, including developed sites. The ban includes fires in wilderness areas and the use of charcoal briquettes. Camp stoves that use propane or liquid fuels with an on-off switch are acceptable.

“The weather has been consistently hot and dry in this area, and we continue to see illegal and unattended fires,” said Forest Supervisor Tracy Beck. “Safety of our neighbors and employees is our first priority, and the decision has been made to ban all campfires.”

Under current fire restrictions, smoking is not allowed except within an enclosed vehicle or building, or a developed recreation site. Generators are permitted only in areas devoid of vegetation, such as a paved area or developed campsite. Motorized vehicles may operate only on designated trails and roads. Santiam and Huckleberry OHV areas remain open, but riders are cautioned to park in areas devoid of vegetation for 10 feet around any vehicle.

Around Sweet Home, the air was clear of smoke Friday, and the weather warmed up a bit, said Chad Calderwood, forest protection supervisor for the Oregon Department of Forestry Sweet Home Unit. Winds came up, causing problems with fires across the state.

The fire danger rating decreased from extreme to high Sunday at noon based on higher humidity levels, cloud cover and low temperatures over the weekend, Calderwood said. The Industrial Fire Protection level remained at III, but Monday it was at II with a day-long waiver. That level will remain a daily discussion.

Calderwood said the Sweet Home Unit measured .17 inches of rain from 11:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.

That was the first rain since June 17, a total of 71 days, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers records.

Calderwood said he did not know when or if the fire danger level would increase back to extreme.

Temperatures were expected to reach back into the 80s this week, Calderwood said, and “they say after this, there’s no rain in sight.”

The Sweet Home Unit has responded to 47 calls this summer as of Monday, Calderwood said. The unit has had nine statistical fires, where ODF personnel must take significant action.

Response to fires has been aggressive.

“We’ve been jumping on stuff,” Calderwood said.

The unit has remained fully staffed, with days off canceled to ensure local fire coverage. Personnel have been helping local fire departments with their calls, including a manufactured home that burned on Osage Street Tuesday, Aug. 21.

Sweet Home personnel responded Friday, Aug. 24, to a fire in the Whitcomb Creek area, Calderwood said. It burned an area of about 70 feet by 30 feet. The fire got into some stumps but not into the trees. The cause is under investigation.

The Sweet Home Unit took action on another fire in the Brush Creek area on Aug. 16, Calderwood said. Named the Horse Rock Fire, it burned nearly an acre. ODF was assisted by the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District, Mohawk Fire District and Cascade Timber Consulting. The cause is under investigation.

Sweet Home Unit personnel have been busy in the past couple of weeks off district, Calderwood said. They assisted the Eastern Lane Unit on the 1.8-acre McGowan Powerline Fire outside Marcola and another in the Richardson Gap area.

Sweet Home sent three engines, while Eastern Lane provided four, with two helicopters from Weyerhaeuser.

On the Willamette National Forest, 26 human-caused fires have been reported. Several other fires are under investigation.

Nationally, 111 large fires have burned more than 2.1 million acres in 12 states. Fourteen large fires are currently burning in Oregon. The National Preparedness Level is currently at 5 – the highest level, and the Pacific Northwest is currently experiencing a very challenging fire year due to both the number and size of active fires and the current shortage of firefighting resources (like crews, aircraft, and supplies) to meet this high demand.

With bow hunting season just now under way, Calderwood urges caution. “We just want people to be safe, be vigilant and watch out for things. Help us so we can protect the places they’re hunting.”

People need to carry fire-fighting equipment when on unimproved roads, Calderwood said. That includes a shovel with a handle at least 26 inches long and 5 gallons of water or a 2.5-pound fire extinguisher.

He said that most private land is closed to the public at this time. That includes CTC, Giustina, Weyerhaeuser, Seneca and Starker lands.

Public lands are open but are under full restrictions at this point.

This won’t change until the area receives significant rainfall, Calderwood said. Weather is expected to remain warm in the near future, with temperatures running in the 80s.