By Jayson Jacoby
A soggy end to May made Eastern Oregon's drought look a trifle less dire on paper, but Jason Simmons isn't worried about paper.
He's worried about cheatgrass.
And sagebrush and junipers and pines and firs.
All of which, in common with most vegetation in the region, are primed to burn as a result of 2013's abnormally dry start.
"It's got me a little nervous this year," said Simmons, who is the fire management officer for the BLM's Vale District.
He's especially concerned about desiccating conditions at the lower and middle elevations, the rangelands and forested foothills that comprise millions of acres from central Baker County southward, and in parts of the Blue Mountains to the west.
This danger zone, as it were, includes areas where junipers are the only trees, extending into higher elevations where ponderosa pines and firs mix with or supplant the junipers.
Those areas were so dry by early May that fire officials had to cancel prescribed burning lest those "managed" fires get out of control.
"All of us across the Blues saw that," Simmons said. "That's where we're predicting our trouble will be."
The temporary transition to more typical spring weather - more than half an inch of rain fell at the Baker City Airport during the final week of May - did little to reverse the trend, Simmons said.
Noel Livingston, the deputy fire staff officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, agrees with his BLM colleague's assessment.
"The rain delayed things for a week or two, but beyond that we're going to have to see what the rest of June brings," Livingston said. "It will help, but it won't solve the problem."
Among those problems is that the mountain snowpack, which was slightly below average, is melting earlier than usual due to warmer-than-average temperatures, especially in the first half of May, when the temperature at the Baker City Airport topped 80 on seven straight days.
Snow, of course, is pretty good at preventing fires.
Put simply, the fewer acres covered by snow, the more acres are susceptible to burning.
The unusually dry spring might give firefighters one small advantage, though.
Simmons said the lack of moisture stunted the growth of grasses, including annual cheatgrass.
An invasive species, cheatgrass is troublesome for fire officials because it's the first grass to dry in the spring and because it dominates on hundreds of thousands of acres of rangelands.
Cheatgrass had already turned to tinder-dry "straw" before the rains arrived in mid-May, Simmons said, so the moisture had only the briefest effect on the grass.
But because the grass is about half as tall as it can grow during a damp spring, any fire that starts will have shorter flame lengths, he said.
And that can make a major difference, because once flame lengths exceed about 8 feet, fire crews, even with engines and hoses at their disposal, can't do much to stop the blaze.
There is, as always, a wildcard in this business of predicting the severity of the coming fire season.
It starts about 80 percent of the wildfires on public lands in Northeastern Oregon, yet it's also one of the more unpredictable weather phenomena.
(Human-caused fires are more prevalent on private property.)
Figuring out when lightning will strike - and an even more sketchy proposition, where it will strike - is a challenge even for the most sophisticated computer models employed by meteorologists.
This gap between fire danger, which is only a measure of how fast a fire might spread were it to start, and the likelihood of a fire actually being ignited, is sometimes glossed over despite its significance.
Several of the worst fire seasons on the Wallowa-Whitman, based on the number of acres burned, were years when the fire danger wasn't extreme but lightning storms were frequent.
Conversely, there have been many summers when the fire danger was extreme yet few acres burned, largely because lightning was infrequent.
Ultimately, though, fire officials have to prepare for the worst, and both Simmons and Livingston said the outlook is, well, kind of smoky.
"I think we're still lined up for an earlier-than-normal fire season," Livingston said.
It's already started, in fact.
Fire crews have responded to three wildfires in the past few days. The largest, reported on Sunday, burned about 4.8 acres two miles northwest of Whitney. The others were on the south shore of Phillips Reservoir, and along Camp Creek about five miles north of Whitney.
Officials haven't determined the cause of any of the blazes.