Warming fires still a hazard
By JAYSON JACOBY
Matt Reidy doesn't blame hunters, or anyone else who wanders the woods on frigid fall mornings, for kindling a little blaze to thaw their fingers.
But while he doesn't begrudge them their warmed appendanges, he sure wishes they would douse the embers before they walk away.
Last weekend, during the chilly first rifle elk-hunting season, fire crews extinguished three human-caused blazes on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, said Reidy, who is the forest's fire management officer.
The trio of blazes two west of La Grande, one in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City burned 39 acres.
Although mid-autumn fires in Northeastern Oregon tend to be quite docile compared with their fast-moving summer cousins, all blazes can damage the environment and endanger the people who are paid to put them out.
"Your help is needed," Reidy said.
Specifically, he's seeking the assistance of the hundreds of hunters who will prowl the forests when the second elk season starts Saturday.
"If you need to build a warming fire away from your campsite, please make sure that it is dead out before you leave your hunting area," Reidy said.
Fire officials don't know for certain that shivering hunters lit the three fires last weekend.
The culprits could have been, say, hikers trying to stave off hypothermia.
Hunters, however, tend to shoulder the blame for such blazes on purely statistical grounds they're more plentiful than any other group of forest users at this time of year.
"We haven't had any lightning, so the fires were definitely human-caused," said Jerry Garrett, a dispatcher at the Northeast Interagency Fire Dispatch Center in La Grande.
Although the skin-numbing temperatures that prompt people to ignite fires also conspire to slow the spread of untended flames, last weekend's fires grew larger than is typical for such blazes.
Blame the paucity of precipitation during September and October.
"It just goes to show how dry things are," said Dennis Winkler, an assistant fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman.
At the Baker City Municipal Airport, for instance, .11 of an inch of rain fell during October. Since 1943, the first year for which detailed records are available, just five Octobers were drier.
Yet even as Winkler talked Thursday morning about the prolonged dry spell, the clouds destined to stop the dusty streak had begun to gather on the western horizon.
The National Weather Service predicts that a series of storms will spatter Northeastern Oregon with rain, and possibly snow on the high peaks, for the next several days.
A soggy stretch certainly would reduce the risk of warming fires getting away this weekend, Winkler said.
The two larger fires last weekend both burned on Oct. 28 on the La Grande Ranger District.
The biggest, 32 acres, was near Highway 244 about one mile east of Four Corners Campground, Garrett said.
Another fire scorched about five acres near Johnson Rock Lookout.
The smallest of the three blazes burned two acres near Salmon Creek, just below the Baker City watershed, on Oct. 29, Garrett said.
Before last weekend, firefighters had handled just a few human-caused blazes on the Wallowa-Whitman this fall, Winkler said.
"It was really kind of surprising to have three in one weekend," he said. "People had been really good up until then."