Northeastern Oregon suffered from the smoke this summer but it pretty much missed out on the fire.
This corner of the state, the site of more than a dozen major blazes over the past few decades, was something of an eye in the fiery storm that engulfed much of the West.
While fires were scorching tens of thousands of acres elsewhere in Oregon, and in the neighboring states of Idaho, Washington and California, Northeastern Oregon’s drought-desiccated forests and rangelands burned only in a figurative sense as an August heatwave broke temperature records.
Although the situation is a bit more complicated, local fire managers say the explanation for the comparatively quiet 2018 fire season can be distilled to a single factor.
Or rather, a lack of lightning.
“We had a few storms that came through but there wasn’t a lot of lightning compared with past seasons,” said Steve Meyer, wildland fire supervisor at the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Baker City office. “That was definitely the biggest thing, the lack of widespread lightning.”
It was big because lightning sparks more wildfires than any other source, including people, in Northeastern Oregon.
In some years lightning is the culprit in 80 percent or more of the blazes.
Lightning-sparked fires are especially common on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, with an annual average of 71 over the past 10 years.
Lightning has started more than 100 fires on the forest in 15 separate years since 1972.
But 2018 was an anomaly.
With the risk of lightning almost over for the season, there have been 26 lightning fires on the Wallowa-Whitman this year.
That’s the fewest in any year since at least 1972. The previous low point was 33 fires in 2016.
The 2017 fire season was more typical, with 91 lightning fires.
The unusual scarcity of lightning was a welcome respite, said Willy Crippen, fire management officer for the Burnt-Powder Fire Zone, which takes in much of the southern half of the Wallowa-Whitman.
“We’ve been pretty beat up the past couple of years,” Crippen said.
Although Crippen agrees with Meyer that the lack of lightning was the most important factor in keeping the 2018 fire season at bay, it wasn’t the only one.
Crippen said it was also vital to have what fire managers call “initial attack” resources — those that respond first to a new blaze — available nearby, and in particular airplanes and helicopters.
“We did have some really successful initial attacks on the few lightning fires we had,” Crippen said. “Our goal, ultimately, is that 98 percent of initial attacks are successful.”
Success, in this case, means that the fire is contained — but not necessarily extinguished — after the first period of firefighting.
This year the initial attack crews were successful with every lightning blaze on the Wallowa-Whitman, Crippen said.
Although the rash of large fires across the West for much of the summer depleted the number of crews available, Crippen said that didn’t have an effect on the aircraft available for initial attack in Northeastern Oregon.
The reason, he said, is that a few helicopters or single-engine air tankers are much more valuable for initial attack than for working on a massive fire.
“In that case, one more helicopter isn’t going to make the difference,” Crippen said.
But having a helicopter arrive within 30 minutes after a fire is reported can potentially prevent a small blaze from becoming a big one, he said.
See more in the Oct. 3, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.