Fire season ends mildly

Sean C. Morgan

A short, mild fire season officially ended a little earlier than usual after 10 days of continual rain this month.

The season ended on Oct. 5 and was a total of 97 days long, matching the fire season in 2007. In the past decade only 2005 was shorter, at 95 days.

And this fire season had fewer statistically significant fires, 14, in the Sweet Home area than either of those years. There were 35 fires in 2007, with 88 acres burned, and 12 in 2005, with 13 acres burned. Only one acre was burned this year, the same as 2010. In the past decade, only 2004 had fewer statistically significant fires with 12 and one acre burned.

The 10-year average length for fire season is 105 days, with 25 fires and 149 acres burned. The average is skewed by 2006, in which 1,181 acres burned, most of them in the Middle Fork Fire in the Quartzville area. The next highest year was 2007 with 88 acres.

Of the fires this year, five were from equipment use, three from recreationists, four from debris burning and one from lightning. One fire is listed as miscellaneous by the Oregon Department of Forestry Sweet Home Unit.

“They’re the same causes every year,” said Sweet Home Unit Forester Ed Keith. “All those fires can be prevented (except the lightning).”

The Sweet Home Unit had 30 to 40 other fire responses, Keith said. Those are typically illegal burn calls or others where firefighters do not need to take action.

“We had that stretch of two weeks when the temperature just dropped,” said Keith, with that came a 10-day stretch of rain.

The Sweet Home Unit issued three citations and probably warned around 35 people for illegal burns, Keith said. “Most of the time, people get a citation if it’s a repeat offender or we have to take action on it.”

“We had a one-week stretch where we were in extreme fire danger,” Keith said. “We were just lucky enough not to have any fires starting.”

The U.S. Forest Service had fires on the east side of the Willamette National Forest, which is within the Sweet Home Unit’s coverage area, Keith said. The Shadow Lake Fire in that area got within a couple of miles of 400 acres of protected private lands.

“That was definitely our biggest concern,” Keith said. “It was going through several thousand acres a day when it was going.”

During the extreme fire danger, the Sweet Home Unit responded to one fire at Horse Rock off West Brush Creek Road, Keith said. An abandoned campfire was set in an area that hadn’t been properly cleared. It started creeping around and burned one-tenth of an acre the day after the extreme fire danger went into effect in late August.

With the late rains and late spring, fuel loads were high, especially among the fine fuels, Keith said, and any fire during that period could have been trouble.

The Sweet Home Unit’s largest fires were a pair of quarter-acre fires, while everything else was much smaller, Keith said. One was an illegal burn that got away and another was at a hay operation on the Upper Calapooia.

The Sweet Home Unit has two members of its fire crew still on through the end of the month winterizing equipment and wrapping up things around the station, Keith said. They’re also around in case something gets away from someone now that the burn ban is lifted.

Burning yard debris, no garbage or building material, is allowed now depending on the instructions on the burn line, (541) 451-1904. Slash burning requires a permit, Keith said. The unit has had some slash burning, but people are waiting for more rain.

“We’ve had a couple of really great years,” Keith said. “The last three years, we’ve only burned four acres total.”

The weather helped keep down the fire danger, but the amount of responses the Sweet Home Unit had were down too, and those types of responses aren’t generally weather-related, Keith said.

The Sweet Home Unit finished the season saying goodbye to 42-year veteran Jim Basting, who retired on Sept. 30, Keith said, and the unit will open Basting’s forest protection supervisor position to applications in about a week, with a new supervisor expected to be hired in the next month or two.