By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
In Northeastern Oregon, the fire seasons severity stems not from a lack of mountain snowpack, but from an abundance of summer thunderstorms.
Lightning not only sparks most fires on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, but it also ignites the vast majority of big blazes.
Since 1971, lightning-caused fires have burned more than 59,000 acres on the 2.3-million-acre Wallowa-Whitman in six separate summers.
In only one year since 1971 did fires started by humans char more than 1,000 acres. In just two other summers did human-cause fires burn more than 400 acres.
The fire seasons of 1989 and 1994 vividly demonstrate the discrepancy in destructiveness between lightning and human factors.
In 1989, a total of 366 lightning fires burned 66,000 acres on the Wallowa-Whitman. Big fires that summer included the 25,000-acre Canal fire in Wallowa County, and the 20,000-acre Dooley Mountain fire south of Baker City.
That same summer, humans caused 17 fires on the Wallowa-Whitman, which burned a combined 109 acres.
Five years later, lightning again touched off huge blazes on the Wallowa-Whitman, including the Twin Lakes fire, which burned about 20,000 acres in the Fish Lake country north of Halfway. All told that year, 219 lightning-sparked fires scorched 60,981 acres.
The tally of human-caused fires, meanwhile, was 24. The total acres burned was 16.
Statistics such as these discourage fire experts from declaring that a drought-fueled fire disaster is imminent this summer.
Lightning, not drought, clearly is the most important factor in determining a fire seasons severity, said John Szymoniak of the Wallowa-Whitman.
This doesnt mean Szymoniak is without worries.
Even as he asserts the clear connection between electrical storms and burned acres, he is checking the Internet for the newest numbers from the Palmer Drought Severity Index.
The index, the most widely used of its type, shows Northeastern Oregon facing perhaps its worst drought since 1977.
And drought, Szymoniak agrees, doesnt make a firefighters duties any simpler.
During a drought the grasses and shrubs and trees that feed forest fires burn more readily, he said. Soil sapped of moisture by months of insufficient rain and snow adds to the danger that a small fire will grow too fast for firefighters to stop.
But Szymoniak also knows no drought ever started a fire.
Lightning is the most likely culprit on average, it starts 120 fires per year on the Wallowa-Whitman compared with 30 annually from human sources.
Of course, not every thunderstorm leads to catastrophe.
The crucial factor is rain.
Storms accompanied by cloudbursts usually dont lead to large fires, Szymoniak said. Rain may not put out a lightning-caused blaze, but it often slows the fires spread, giving firefighters time to get there.
In some fire seasons, every lightning storm dumps lots of rain. In those years there may be a lot of fires, but not many acres burned, Szymoniak said.
An excellent example is 1979.
That summer lightning started 151 fires on the Wallowa-Whitman 31 more than average. Yet those blazes burned just 40 acres, indicated most were so-called spot fires, ones that didnt spread far from the spot where the lightning bolt hit the ground.
Thats just the sort of blaze firefighters usually find after the passage of a wet thunderstorm, Szymoniak said.
Absence of drought, presence of fire
Dry thunderstorms, though less common, are vastly more dangerous.
Perhaps the archetypal storm of this type crossed Baker County in late July of 1989.
The storm, which spawned thousands of lightning strikes but only a few brief rain showers, torched hundreds of fires.
The next morning there were simply too many fires and not enough firefighters, Szymoniak said.
Several of the blazes burned out of control, including the Canal and Dooley Mountain fires, which combined to burn almost 70 percent of the acres consumed that summer.
The 1989 fire season demonstrated not only the hazard of dry thunderstorms, but also the tenuous correlation between drought and a fire seasons severity, Szymoniak said.
The winter preceding that fire season was unusually wet and cold, with a mountain snowpack well above average.
There was no drought that year, Szymoniak said. Yet it was the fourth-worst fire season in the past 30 years.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is 1977, which certainly was a drought year, and which many are comparing to 2001.
But though the drought was severe in 1977, the fire season decidedly was not.
There was lots of lightning that summer it started 143 fires on the Wallowa-Whitman.
But those fires burned just 35 acres.
Thats a number Szymoniak would like to add to the Wallowa-Whitmans tally at the end of this years fire season.
Hes not going to make any predictions, of course, not with a phenomenon as inherently unpredictable as thunderstorms.
But Szymoniak can say, with confidence, that the Wallowa-Whitman will be better equipped to handle fires this year.
Due to an infusion of money from the National Fire Plan Congress approved last year, the Wallowa-Whitman is hiring 34 new firefighters this year.
Eleven of those will be assigned to the Burnt-Powder Fire Zone, which encompasses the Baker, Unity and Pine ranger districts. Each district will have two fire engines on call.
In addition, the Wallowa-Whitman has contracted with a pair of 20-person firefighting crews one at Baker City and the other at La Grande and 10-person crews at Baker City and Pine, each composed of seasonal Forest Service employees.
This years were going to have a whole lot more people available to us, and that makes a big difference, Szymoniak said.