SALEM, Ore. — Though conditions on the ground look dire for the 2020 Fire Season in Oregon, state officials expressed a measured degree of optimism in a Friday press briefing with multiple agencies involved in the state's wildfire response.
In February, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) signaled that it was rapidly running out of funds less than a year into the agency's two-year budget cycle. Less than a month later, the 2020 legislative session ended without lawmakers addressing proposed funding for the agency after Republicans shunned the Capitol in protest over a cap-and-trade bill, prompting Democrats to end the session early.
Nonetheless, state Natural Resources Policy Director Justin Miner said on Friday that "ODF has the funding it needs" to face the coming fire season.
In April, the Oregon legislature emergency board did give give ODF a small influx of additional funding — approving a budget of $55.6 million for the 2020 wildfire season, according to a report from OPB.
Miner said that the larger funding proposal that fell flat in the last legislative session, which represented an investment in ODF's firefighting future, will likely return in the 2021 session — if greatly reduced due to the economic downturn of coronavirus.
ODF Fire Protection division chief Doug Grafe said that the agency will be able to maintain fairly typical staffing levels this year, hiring 600 seasonal firefighters. Moreover, Grafe said that the U.S. Forest Service had made available a supply of heavy Type I firefighting helicopters that will be on hand for the 2020 season — something that has not been the case in previous years.
Fire weather predictions for 2020 have not looked favorable for the Pacific Northwest this summer — particularly for southwest Oregon and northern California, which face above normal "significant large fire potential" from June through September, according to federal models. Much of this is due to drought conditions in southern Oregon counties.
Unexpected rain and low temperatures in Oregon over the past several weeks have improved the outlook somewhat, Grafe said, potentially buying the region some extra time before major fires begin.
Since 2020 began, ODF has seen 16 lightning-caused fires and 162 human-caused fires — the latter representing a significant spike over the previous 9-year average of 95 human-caused fires by June 1. Around 3,000 acres have burned since the beginning of the year.
Grafe said that COVID-19 precautions mean that both training and deployment of wildland firefighters will look different this year, with increased isolation in firefighting camps. Lunch lines will be replaced with box lunches, and command posts will be separated from the rest of the camp.
Initial fire attack crews will be equipped with face shields and N95 masks. Grafe said that this year there will be greater emphasis on an aggressive initial attack, an attempt to keep fires from growing to cover hundreds or thousands of acres.