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Oregon escapes relatively unscathed from height of wildfire season

After two wildfire-filled seasons, Oregonians got a break this summer.

Posted: Sep 24, 2019 11:31 AM
Updated: Sep 24, 2019 11:55 AM

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — After two wildfire-filled seasons, Oregonians got a break this summer.

Oregon's fire season was the mildest since 2004 and the least expensive since 2010, according to statistics from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

The Statesman Journal reports that statewide, wildfires burned just 67,795 acres this year compared to 883,405 acres a year ago. Cost also plummeted, dropping to $58 million this year compared to a record-high $530 million in 2018.

"This year was a relief," said Dana Skelly, wildfire fuels manager for the U.S. Forest Service. "We had two really long and difficult years. It was nice to have a break."

One reason for the lack of wildfires was that Oregon's forests never dried out to the level of the past two years, thanks to cooler temperatures and greater humidity, especially in the mountains.

Even when wildfires ignited, "we never had a fire environment that was set up for explosive growth," Skelly said.

Fire danger is measured based on the "energy release component" in forests — how hot a forest is likely to burn. Three of the past five years, Oregon has been at the highest level of danger, while this year, "we were average or even below average most of the year," Skelly said.

Another factor was that when Oregon had major lighting events, which occurred multiple times this summer, the systems came with rain.

The light season provided some opportunity to allow wildfires to burn, but it mostly occurred in Eastern Oregon.

The Granite Gulch Fire, for example, was allowed to burn 5,555 acres, in a controlled way, in northeast Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness.

"The best way to describe it is a 'managed fire,' because while we're not putting it out, we do check it with water drops to make sure it's staying where we want it," said Nathan Goodrich, zone fire management officer for Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in August. "By doing it that way, it really has been a great fire throughout its lifespan."

Goodrich said that after decades of suppression, the fire, and others like it, helped restore more natural conditions that could limit more catastrophic fires in the future.

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