Firefighting agencies prepare for heat, wind, and lightning storms

Credit: John McKelligott, USFS Rogue River-Siskiyou Natl. Forest

Continued high temperatures are set to combine with thunderstorms this week — creating dangerous conditions for potential wildfires.

Posted: Aug 27, 2019 3:43 PM
Updated: Aug 27, 2019 3:53 PM

MEDFORD, Ore. — Firefighting agencies throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California are bracing this week for the proverbial "perfect storm" of wildfire conditions, with forecasts predicting the combination of high temperatures, stiff winds, and dry thunderstorms.

U.S. Forest Service officials in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest said that they had requested and received an influx of $249,000 to prepare for the potentially severe conditions.

"This funding request will essentially quadruple the number of engines the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has to respond to new starts, in addition to bringing in an additional heavy helicopter that can be utilized for water bucket drops, filling in behind three 10-person hand crews that are currently in other locations on fire assignments, as well as bringing in two 20-person hotshot crews (Union and Mount Baker)," USFS said in a statement. The Rogue River Hotshots were out on an assignment in Alaska.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) in Jackson and Josephine counties said that it had more than 100 firefighters standing by for response to any fire starts, with dispatch and detection centers fully staffed. ODF said it had a large airtanker and three helicopters at the ready.

"Since the beginning of Fire Season 2019, only 10 fires have been determined to be caused by lightning on the District; however, dry fuels typical of late August have the potential to spark easily and spread quickly," ODF said.

Cal Fire in Siskiyou County said that it had also brought in additional staff to prepare for the potential lightning fires — with 19 engines, six hand crews, three dozers, one helicopter and three staffed fire lookouts.

"With our dryer fuels and the hotter temperatures of late August, the potential for a fire to spark easily and cause it to spread quickly are higher," Cal Fire said, echoing ODF's statement.

A similar confluence of thunderstorms and dry conditions in early August did not result in many significant fire starts despite a number of lightning strikes — thanks in large part to the vigilance of these same fire agencies, as well as rain that accompanied the storm. The Ward Fire in Klamath County grew above 1,300 acres before containment, but did not threaten any homes.

In July of 2018, lightning strikes sparked hundreds of fire starts in the region. Several of those fires grew to massive size — threatening entire neighborhoods and burning well into November.

From the StormWatch 12 forecast:

A Fire Weather Watch has been issued for virtually all of Southern Oregon and Eastern Siskiyou County from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Wednesday. Abundant lightning, dry fuels and gusty, erratic winds could lead to new fire starts.

A Red Flag Warning has been issued for the Cascades, Siskiyous, the Klamath Basin and Western Siskiyou County from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. on Wednesday. An increased risk of abundant lightning along with dry fuels and gusty erratic winds is creating critical fire danger.

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