By Jayson Jacoby
The mosquitoes got the jump on Matt Hutchinson this spring.
Not that mosquitoes jump, exactly.
But they fly.
And in the case of the females, they bite.
"It's been pretty busy," said Hutchinson, who's in his second year as manager of the Baker Valley Vector Control District.
To put it another way, he's the hired mosquito killer for a 200,000-acre area that includes Baker City and most of the Baker, Bowen and Keating valleys.
Hutchinson said the combination of an earlier-than-usual onset of flood irrigation in Baker Valley and a couple of periods of warm weather in early May produced a crop of mosquitoes sooner than is typical.
And some of those mosquitoes flew or were pushed by a persistent north wind into Baker City.
"We've definitely gotten more complaints from inside town than the year before," Hutchinson said on Thursday.
The warmer the air, and the warmer the water where their eggs are laid, the faster mosquitoes progress through their larval stages and hatch into adults.
Hutchinson said most of the "obnoxious" mosquitoes plaguing Baker City residents hatched in flood-irrigated fields north of town.
Although many farmers have switched from flood irrigation to sprinklers over the past 20 years or so, there's still a considerable amount of ground in the valley that's submerged during the spring, Hutchinson said.
Duane Chandler knows this firsthand.
His family owns Chandler Herefords, a cattle ranch in Baker Valley about midway between Baker City and Haines. The Chandlers use flood irrigation in their hay pastures.
Chandler said mosquitoes this spring "are the worse they've been in as long as I can remember."
"If you don't have mosquito repellent on - and I mean everywhere - you feel like you're going to be carried off," Chandler said. "They're horrible."
Chandler understands that flood irrigation provides breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
But he agrees with Hutchinson that the proliferation of mosquitoes this year has more to do with timing than anything else.
"We're part of the contributing factor," Chandler said. "But nothing's really changed as far as the way we go about things. It's just one of those years."
Hutchinson said the persistent wind, besides pushing mosquitoes from the valley into Baker City, also has hampered his aerial campaign against mosquito larvae.
The Vector Control District hires a company that uses airplanes to spray products that kill mosquito larvae and as well as adult insects.
The district's focus, though, is on the larvae, Hutchinson said.
"That's the best way to do it - get them before they become biting adults," he said. "Obviously that doesn't always work out."
Although city residents are helpless to thwart floodwater mosquitoes from migrating into town, they can prevent local infestations by making sure there's no standing water on their property.
Even a bucket or an old tire can harbor mosquito eggs and larvae, Hutchinson said.
He also recommends residents who are plagued by mosquitoes to avoid going outside at dawn and dusk, when the bugs are most active.
When you are outside, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and use a repellent that contains DEET.
Hutchinson urges residents who either have major mosquito problems - one or two isn't an infestation - to call his office at 541-523-1151 and leave a detailed message. Do the same if you think you've found a major breeding ground for larvae, as well, he said.
Hutchinson said he hopes mosquito population has reached its peak, at least temporarily.
Most flood irrigation has ceased until later in the summer.
Also, his crew of three seasonal employees is working full time. They don't start until June - one is a teacher and another a college student - so this spring's unusually early mosquito onslaught left Hutchinson alone to deal with the problem.
The Vector Control District traps mosquitoes every week to be tested for West Nile virus.
That mosquito-borne disease, which has been confirmed in mosquitoes in Baker County most summers since 2005, including 2013, generally doesn't show up until July or August, Hutchinson said.