For the second straight summer Northeastern Oregon, even as it broiled beneath a scorching sun, stayed comparatively cool through the wildfire season.
But though both years were tranquil, there were significant differences between the 2019 season and its immediate predecessor.
Most notably was the number of fires.
The 2018 season stands out for the scarcity of blazes, said Noel Livingston, fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Lightning, which starts most fires on the forest, ignited just 26 blazes last year, the fewest since at least 1970. Those fires burned just 17.3 acres, which ranks as the third-lowest annual total in the past half century on the Wallowa-Whitman.
The 2019 season has been much more active, with 68 lightning fires on the Wallowa-Whitman — exactly the annual average from the previous 10-year period.
But with the exception of the Granite Gulch fire in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, which has spread across 5,555 acres, none of this summer’s lightning fires has burned more than 30 acres.
(The Granite Gulch fire is an anomaly because the Wallowa-Whitman has been managing the blaze rather than trying to put it out as quickly as possible. The forest has a policy that allows a variety of strategies for lightning-sparked fires inside the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Fire managers say the Granite Gulch fire has had beneficial effects, including reducing the amount of combustible fuel in the forest and creating a natural firebreak that could slow or stop a future blaze.)
The total burned acreage from the Wallowa-Whitman’s 67 fires, again not counting Granite Gulch, is 98.5 acres.
That’s well below the average of 22,000 acres burned annually, and fewer burned acres than all but 12 years in the past 50.
“Obviously it’s a fairly quiet year from a large fire standpoint,” Livingston said. “Our starts were way up from last year but we had good success with initial attack.”
Livingston is referring to the early phase of firefighting, when the difference between succeeding and failing can mean the difference between a fire that burns a tenth of an acre and one that burns 10,000.
Livingston attributes this year’s success during the initial attack phase to a few factors in addition to firefighters’ prowess.
For one, the relative lack of large fires across much of the West meant firefighting resources, including helicopters and retardant planes that can be vital during initial attack, were readily available this summer.
“There was not much competition for resources,” Livingston said.
The situation was similar over much of Oregon, although there were a few larger blazes, including the 9,700-acre 204 Cow Fire on the Malheur National Forest about 17 miles southwest of Unity. It was sparked by lightning on Aug. 9.
Fire danger was lower this summer than last as well, Livingston said.
During the summer of 2018, when the Baker City Airport set all-time high temperature records on consecutive August days at 108 and 109 degrees, fuel moistures and other measurements of fire danger also reached record highs, Livingston said.
But because lightning was relatively rare, as reflected in the record-low number of fires, the region avoided what could have been a catastrophic fire season.
This summer, by contrast, a damp spring and comparatively cool temperatures kept fire danger indexes near or below average for most of the season, Livingston said.
And the lightning storms, of which there were several, also spawned rain showers that both prevented fuels from turning into tinder and gave firefighters an assist.
“Almost without exception the lightning storms came through with moisture,” Livingston said.
One of Livingston’s colleagues, Steve Meyer, agrees that the combination — relatively moist fuels and rain — contributed greatly to placid behavior of most fires this summer.
“We were fairly busy off and on with lightning fires but there was enough rain with the storms that came through that they all stayed small for us,” said Meyer, who is the wildland fire supervisor for the Oregon Department of Forestry in Baker County.
Meyer said this is the only summer he can remember during his 23-year career in which the fire danger never reached the “extreme” level.
The Forestry Department’s Baker unit has reported six lightning fires and one human-caused fire this season. The agency’s La Grande unit handled 12 lightning and four human-caused blazes, and the Wallowa unit 22 lightning and six human fires.
The lack of human-caused fires in the Baker unit — only one this year — was welcome, Meyer said.
Al Crouch, fire mitigation/education specialist for the BLM’s Vale District, echoed that sentiment.
There have been nine human-caused fires on the Vale District this year, which burned 535 acres.
That’s below the District’s 10-year average of 13 human fires, and it ends a three-year stretch with more of those blazes than average, including 18 in both 2017 and 2018, Crouch said.
Fire managers fear human-caused fires because they’re so unpredictable, Meyer said.
Officials can track lightning strikes by computer almost in real time, and divert fire crews relatively quickly to new blazes, he said.
But a fire started by a person, whether intentionally or by accident, can show up without any warning.
“You just have no way of knowing when something like that’s going to happen,” Meyer said.
Crouch said that despite a couple of intense lightning storms, the number of downstrikes on the Vale District was below the 10-year average.
So was the number of lightning fires, although the difference was not large — 30 blazes this year compared with a 10-year average (2009-18) of 35.
This year’s fires didn’t burn nearly as many acres as in many years in the past decade, however.
The 2019 total of 4,435 acres burned by lightning fires compares with the 10-year average of 158,000 acres.
“It’s been a different kind of summer,” Crouch said. “We had a couple of events with lightning and fires, but when you’ve got rain with those cells it helps knock those fires down.”
Crouch said he expects that there were a number of what fire managers call “natural out” blazes — ones ignited by lightning but are doused by rain before anyone reports them.