We didn’t need a reminder about the danger of human-caused wildfires as we approach the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse and the potential to have 50,000 or so visitors in Baker County.
But we got one anyway.
More than one, in fact.
During the past week, a pair of human-caused fires has burned more than 2,200 acres in the region. The Morgan Creek fire burned 2,000 acres along Brownlee Reservoir north of Huntington last week. The Indian Lake fire burned 222 acres in the Blue Mountains between La Grande and Pendleton.
The cause of a third fire — the 489-acre Bear Butte fire, which was reported Friday and prompted the evacuation of Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort and nearby campgrounds, and the closure of a section of the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway — hasn’t been determined, but it’s plausible that it, too, was sparked by human activity, as there hadn’t been any recent lightning in the area.
So far this fire season, people have started 30 fires in the region, and lightning has ignited 44 blazes, according to the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center in La Grande. Human-caused fires have burned 1,298 acres, and lightning fires 1,017 acres.
Unfortunately, the fire danger is likely to increase between now and the eclipse. And it’s already severe — the Umatilla and Malheur national forests have stopped all industrial activity, including logging, and the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest has restricted such activity.
Combine that with an influx of visitors, some of whom probably won’t understand that even a stray spark or the hot catalytic converter under their vehicle can spawn a massive fire, and we have a combustible mixture that could make the great eclipse memorable in a particularly unpleasant way.
Firefighting agencies are preparing as best they can, by stationing crews around the county. Trouble is, there’s no way to know where all the visitors — and thus fires — will be. And heavy traffic could prevent fire crews from getting where they need to go.
At a minimum we urge everyone, locals and visitors alike, to heed to the letter the various fire-related restrictions that are in place now, and almost certainly will still be in place during the eclipse. These include bans on campfires except in designated campgrounds and recreation areas, and limits on the use of chain saws and other equipment that can generate sparks.
We hope people are even more cautious, though, and that they will be especially vigilant with anything that could produce heat or flames.
From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of publisher Kari Borgen, editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.