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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Fire risk isn't that hot

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Fire risk isn't that hot

Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell engaged in a bit of hyperbole — albeit the harmless sort — a couple of weeks ago, while wind-fanned fires were charring half a million acres and destroying a few thousand homes in Southern California.

Kimbell, who was in Portland to give a speech to the Society of American Foresters, warned that, due to global climate change, such conflagrations are essentially inevitable in the future.

"Fires are burning hotter and bigger, becoming more damaging and dangerous to people and to property," Kimbell said. "Each year the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer."

Well, not exactly.

And not everywhere.

On the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the 2002 fire season was a busy one, with 153 fires burning 21,546 acres.

But in 2003 there were fewer blazes — 105 — and they blackened fewer acres — 16,811.

The next year was more tranquil still, with 102 fires and just 946 acres burned.

The past three fire seasons on the Wallowa-Whitman were comparatively active, with more than 100 fires and more than 25,000 acres burned each year.

Statistics aside, Kimbell's main point was a valid one. The climate is warming, and that change could contribute to conditions that make catastrophes such as the one that befell Southern California more common, there and elsewhere.

Yet we feel compelled to add a bit of localized perspective to Kimbell's well-meaning but generalized warning.

The setting for the California disaster — hundreds of homes built on steep terrain covered with extremely combustible chapparal — doesn't exist in Eastern Oregon. Not yet, anyway. A blaze this summer near Burns scorched 140,000 acres but didn't destroy a single home.

Fire seasons hereabouts don't mimic conditions in Southern California, either. The chaparral can get crispy by June, and the fire danger often reaches its peak during October, when the hot, dry Santa Ana winds arrive. In Northeastern Oregon, by contrast, the fire danger rarely reaches even the moderate level until mid-June, and the threat of a big blaze pretty much fizzles by the fall equinox.

Not even the most drastic estimates about climate change have Northeastern Oregon's climate resembling Southern California's.

To her credit, Kimbell tempered her dire predictions with valuable advice that's applicable everywhere. She urged property owners and government officials to work together to reduce the fire risk by clearing brush, pruning trees and taking other relatively simple, inexpensive precautions around rural homes.

Dozens of Baker County residents have already done so, many of them with financial help from the federal government.

As Kimbell noted in her speech, it's far better to spend money to keep the flames at bay than to try to douse them once they've arrived.

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