Lightning sparks above-average wildfire season
By JEFF BARNARD
Of the Associated Press
GRANTS PASS — Lightning and drought spread wildfire to more state-protected land in 2013 than any year since 1951, and sent spending $30 million over revenues, according to a report from the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The 162 square miles that burned on state, private and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry was eight times the 10-year average, and nearly half the 325 square miles that burned overall in Oregon. The last time so much state-protected land burned was at the end of the two-decade period known as the Tillamook Burn.
“This is the shape of things to come, based on everything we know about potential climate change fluctuations and energy in the atmosphere,” said John Bailey, an associate professor of forestry at Oregon State University. “This is going to become more the norm than the unusual.”
The National Climate Assessment issued this year predicts the area burned by wildfires will double nationwide over the next 25 years as global warming increases temperatures, lengthens wildfire seasons and generates more droughts.
Oregon spent $122 million on large fires, which burned an estimated $370 million in timber on state, private and BLM lands, the report said.
After reimbursements from federal agencies, the state is liable for $75 million. That is $30 million over the amount covered by landowner assessments, the state general fund, and a $25 million insurance policy. The department will have to go to the Legislature to ask for the extra money, spokesman Rod Nichols said.
Three firefighters died in Oregon — one when a tree fell on him, another when a water truck crashed and a third of natural causes.
The fires burned mostly in remote areas, far from homes, but the Government Flat Complex burned four homes on the northern flank of Mount Hood.
Oregon typically sees far fewer homes burn than California, Colorado and Arizona, said Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. That is because the state adopted laws in the 1970s that slowed the spread of homes into forests, and because most people live in the northwestern corner of the state, where the wetter climate makes fires less common.
One dry lightning storm in late July sparked 80 fires in the rugged mountains of southwestern Oregon, where trees and brush were dry from lack of rain and hot temperatures. Though most of the fires were stopped while still small, five major fires developed that accounted for much of the area burned, and filled the Rogue Valley with smoke that rose to unhealthy levels. The biggest, the Douglas Complex, grew to more than 78 square miles outside Glendale, and was the top-priority fire in the nation for 11 days.
By August, nine large fires were burning uncontained across 288 square miles of Oregon, from the northeastern corner to the southwest.
In another unusual development, heavy rains late in the season slowed the spread of many of the big fires, and helped disperse the smoke.