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State officials expect normal, or below average fire season

Forestry department fire managers fear solar eclipse watchers could pose a threat.

COURTESY OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY - Government Flat fire near The Dalles, August 2013. A strong snowpack and cool weather have led Oregon wildfire managers to predict an average to below-average fire season this year.SALEM — Boosted by healthy snowpack and the unlikely prospect of drought, Oregon is facing an average or lower-than-average fire season, according to the state's forestry department.

Nick Yonker, a smoke management meteorology manager at the Department of Forestry, told the Board of Forestry Wednesday that various indicators appear to show that the state can expect a fairly tame fire season.

From Oregon's high desert sagebrush to coastal rainforests, the official start of fire season varies and is declared locally, but typically gets underway in June.

Showing the board a map of likely drought spots in the continental United States, Yonker said it was "probably the best looking slide I've seen in years."

"Basically, throughout the entire United States, there is almost no drought whatsoever," Yonker said. "And the areas where there is drought, it looks like it's going to be improving, so this is pretty phenomenal, to see this throughout the United States, let alone the west and the state of Oregon."

In the summer months, there are equal chances that precipitation could be below or above normal, and so the state can probably expect a normal dry period in summer, Yonker said, but the department is also getting "mixed signals" on whether summer temperatures will be higher or lower than usual.

Additionally, the state is in a good position with respect to snowpack, as it did not melt early, Yonker said. While the dry rangelands east of the Cascades could pose a risk, in terms of forestland that's protected by ODF, the risk of a major fire is normal or below normal.

Although there could be a below-normal amount of rainfall in June, Yonker said some rain and "pretty chilly conditions" in the coming week could change that expectation, as well. There's also a lower risk of dry lightning, which can cause fires.

With about a month to go before the Legislature adjourns, state lawmakers are busy hammering out budgets for state agencies, including the Department of Forestry.

Fire protection costs take up a significant chunk of the agency's spending. A combination of public and private funding from various sources, ranging from private landowners to FEMA , sustains fire protection in the state.

Industry groups have voiced concerns because, according to board meeting materials, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown proposed a spending plan in December that would have cut more than 30 seasonal firefighters and reduced state General Fund dollars for fire prevention and suppression efforts.

Overall, the governor recommended a 35 percent decrease in the agency's fire protection budget, which her office attributed to one-time reductions due to large wildfires in the 2015-17 budget cycle.

The governor has also proposed a 9 percent reduction in the budget of the agency's private forests division.

Amy Patrick, director of fire protection for the Oregon Forest Industries Council, told the Board of Forestry that the amount proposed by the governor was inadequate, but was hopeful that the Legislature would not approve the reductions.

State agencies like the forestry department typically defer to the governor's recommended budget as part of the budget process. But while the governor makes recommendations, the legislature has the final say in what gets funded.

Although a catastrophic fire season seems unlikely, officials are concerned that an unusual extraterrestrial event could create complications for fire protection efforts.

An Aug. 21 solar eclipse could bring over a million visitors to areas within the so-called "path of totality" — the geographic area where the eclipse is expected to be most dramatic. It crosses through seven ODF districts.

Ron Graham, deputy chief of the agency's fire protection division, said the state typically sees about 20 fires in that path of totality during the week of Aug. 16 to Aug. 23.

The agency brought an assistant district forester from John Day to Salem to coordinate solar eclipse operational planning efforts.

"His job has become extremely busy," Graham said.

That said, Graham says the department is preparing to handle what the eclipse brings.

"We feel we are ready to meet the needs, as we know now," Graham said. "There are still a lot of unknowns in this, and a lot of contingencies to try to plan for it, but nevertheless we have a very focused planning effort toward this."