Will heavy rain this year mean fewer wildfires?

The department of forestry will be ready regardless

An air tanker drops fire retardant over a wild fire at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest between Grants Pass and Cave Junction in Oregon. (AP Photo/John Luerding)
An air tanker drops fire retardant over a wild fire at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest between Grants Pass and Cave Junction in Oregon. (AP Photo/John Luerding)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s getting closer to wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest but the wet, snowy winter may mean fewer fires this summer.

“It’s been a very wet winter. The important thing for us especially with mountains, we want to look at snowpack,” Nick Yonker, Smoke Management and Meteorologist for the Oregon Department of Forestry said. “The snowpack has been very healthy this year and we had low elevation snow as well.”

Approximately 300 acres were burning near Sunriver, Oregon in August 2016. (Central Oregon Fire)
Approximately 300 acres were burning near Sunriver, Oregon in August 2016. (Central Oregon Fire)

Historically, wet winters, deep snowpack and spring rain help keep wildfires down, but agencies are still focused on preparation and prevention.

Each spring, as the snowpack starts melting and the rain slows, that’s when the ODF and Washington’s Department of Natural Resources gets to work.

“This is our number one priority for this time of the year, is prepping for the fire season,” Ron Graham with ODF said.

This year, like every other, they are ready.

“The most important things that we are doing is tied back to training,” Bob Johnson with the Washington Department of Natural Resources said. “We are in fact training across the state right now.”

In Oregon, there are more than 16 million acres of forest to protect and it takes the efforts of nearly 1,000 firefighters to do the job.

“We partner with many cooperators local and state government, federal government, local fire districts, land owners, forest operators and contractors all make up what we refer to as the complete and coordinated protection system,” Graham said.

After 3 years of dry, vicious weather conditions, 2016 was a below average summer for fires, which was a relieving break for the Pacific Northwest. Wildfires were limited because we saw very little lightning activity, one element Yonker said he doesn’t bet will happen again.

“Last year we were low with lightning, just a few thousand strikes,” Yonker said. “You probably get 10,000-20,000 strikes and you’ll get activity going on.”

So, can we afford another big wildfire? The ODF has a ladder of funding showing a base budget deep enough to pay for large fire cost:

The Oregon Department of Forestry's wildfire budget.
The Oregon Department of Forestry’s wildfire budget.

Fire fighting costs were far above average in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

“Our base budget for fire protection for the biennium is approximately $48 million. It’s a pretty robust budget,” Graham said. “And that does not include large fire suppression cost. Large fire suppression cost are above and beyond the $48 million biannual budget and we have various funding mechanisms for large fire suppression costs.”

In Washington, the Department of Natural Resources has asked for an additional $13 million from the state.

“We are going to work hard to be prepared regardless of where we are from a funding perspective,” Johnson said. “But it does make the job harder when we don’t have the funds to fully do what we would like to do and what we feel we need to do on the landscape to protect the communities that we are tasked to protect.”

In this Sunday, June 28, 2015 photo provided by The Wenatchee World, U.S. Forest Service fire fighters from Leavenworth cut brush near houses in northern Wenatchee, Wash. (Don Seabrook/The Wenatchee World via AP)