While the most destructive wildfires in Oregon history are ravaging much of the state west of the Cascades, the northeast corner, where blazes are more common, remains relatively calm.
But local officials say that tranquility could become illusory, and that the wildfire danger is high or extreme.
And unlike the situation earlier this summer, when few fires were burning, fire managers won’t be able to summon help from outside the area should a major blaze break out.
“Trying to get any kind of resources would be really hard,” said Steve Meyer, wildland fire supervisor at the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Baker City office.
Lightning, which in most summers sparks a majority of the wildfires in the Blue Mountains, isn’t in the forecast for at least the next few days.
But with another warm and dry weekend, and the prospect for hordes of people getting outdoors as has been the case throughout this summer, the specter of human-caused fires leaves fire officials anxious.
High temperatures will approach record levels on Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, and no rain is likely until early next week.
“What we worry about most this time of year is human-caused fires,” Meyer said.
Blazes started by people are especially troubling because they can’t be predicted, he said.
“We can track lightning and have some idea of where to worry about for fires,” Meyer said. “With human-caused fires you just have no idea. You can’t plan for it.”
There were two examples this week on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, both on Wednesday.
A passer-by found an abandoned campfire along Forest Road 77 beside Eagle Creek — an illegal campfire, as it was outside a designated campground. The person doused the fire and reported it to the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center, which sent a firefighting crew to make sure the fire was out, said Peter Fargo, public affairs officer for the Wallowa-Whitman.
Also on Wednesday, hikers in the Eagle Cap Wilderness about 6 miles south of Wallowa Lake found an abandoned campfire, which they extinguished with water from the West Fork of the Wallowa River, said Sara Bethscheider, support services specialist for the Wallowa-Whitman’s Wallowa Mountains Office in Enterprise.
Firefighters hiked to the site, near Six Mile Meadow, on Thursday to confirm that the fire was out, Bethscheider said.
Based on reports from the Forest Service and from campground operators, much larger crowds than usual have congregated in popular destinations such as Anthony Lakes and the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Officials have reported similar situations nationwide, a trend they attribute to the coronavirus pandemic enticing people to spend more time outdoors.
During Labor Day weekend, for instance, Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort, which manages the campground and day-use areas at the lake in the Elkhorn Mountains 35 miles northwest of Baker City, counted almost twice as many visitors on Saturday as on the same day in 2019.
Although campfires are banned across the region, Meyer said one of his concerns is that as summer wanes, recreationists might be lulled into a false sense of security, as regards the fire danger, by the chilly nights.
“Everything’s really dry still,” he said. “It burns just as good when it’s cold.”
Al Crouch shares Meyer’s concerns about the combination of dry forests and rangelands, continued hot weather, and the potential for crowds outdoors.
Crouch is the prevention and mitigation specialist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Vale District, which includes public lands the agency manages in Union, Baker and Wallowa counties.
“We’ve had a lot of human-caused fires across the state,” Crouch said. “People need to stay vigilant, because fire season is a long way from over. In these conditions, it doesn’t take long for a fire to start and get out of control.”
Crouch said visitors from outside Eastern Oregon might not realize the danger dry grass can pose. Just the heat from a vehicle’s muffler or catalytic converter can ignite those fine fuels. That’s the reason cross-country travel by motor vehicles is banned on public lands managed by the BLM, as is parking on dry grass or brush.
As of Friday morning, the Blue Mountain Interagency Dispatch Center, which tracks fires across Northeastern Oregon, had tallied 234 fires this year — 168 caused by lightning, 66 by people.
Combined, the fires have burned 1,425 acres (1,130 from lightning fires, 295 from human-caused blazes).
The other potential challenge is the lack of firefighting resources.
All available crews, aircraft and fire management teams have been sent to blazes, including those in Western Oregon, that have destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and threatened hundreds more.
Meyer said the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Northeast District has sent three or four fire engines to help with those fires.
He said the agency is maintaining its minimum contingent of resources, with an emphasis on engines, aircraft and crews and the overriding goal of a strong “initial attack” — trying to stop new fires before they grow into conflagrations.
“That’s the key for us,” Meyer said. “If we can stop fires before they get going it’s way less of a drain on the system.”
Meyer said the Forestry Department continues to have a pair of single-engine air tankers stationed at the Union County Airport.
A large helicopter is stationed at Pendleton, and a Forest Service tanker, although it has been working on westside fires, has been returning to its home base at the Union County Airport, Meyer said.
Meyer said firefighting response from multiple agencies is vital at any time, but especially now, when resources are so limited.
“We really rely on all the agencies, because just one agency can’t handle every fire,” he said.
Those include the Forest Service and BLM, the state Forestry Department, and more than a dozen rural fire protection districts and associations staffed by volunteers.
Three of the latter agencies added to their firefighting capacities over the past week or so, said Gary Timm, deputy director of Baker County Emergency Management.
Timm helped arrange to have three former Forest Service fire engines, each with a capacity of about 300 gallons and four-wheel drive, donated through the federal government’s excess property program.
The engines will go to the Pine Valley, Haines and Baker Rural fire protection districts, Timm said.
In addition, Idaho Power Company has provided a fire engine for the Burnt River Rural Protection Association, Timm said.
He said officials from all local fire agencies have been meeting regularly to update their statuses.
“What’s happening in this state is a tragedy,” Timm said Friday morning. “What we’re trying to do on our side of the state, and in Baker County, is to remind people that fire season isn’t over, and that people need to be vigilant when they’re out recreating.”
Bethscheider, from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, concurred with Timm’s assessment.
“The Wallowa-Whitman has adequate resources to respond to initial attack fires, but we need support from the public to be responsible and to prevent any unnecessary fire starts,” Bethscheider said. “It would be very difficult to manage and suppress another large scale fire in the Pacific Northwest this summer.”
Computer-generated fire danger indexes for Northeastern Oregon are at near record highs for this time of year.
The indexes were generally below average until early August, but they have been rising, for the most part, since.