Central Oregon prepares for early fire season

Today is the first day of spring, and Central Oregon officials are expressing concern about an early wildfires.

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Today is the first day of spring and and fficials are expressing concern about a wave of early wildfires affecting Central Oregon.

A historically low snowpack greets the new season and will determine how smoky the summer is in the region, the Bend Bulletin reports.

The Deschutes/Crooked River Basin snowpack was only 9 percent of normal for this time of year as of Wednesday, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Many of the automated snow sites monitored by the federal agency report no snow for the first time in three decades of recording data. A year ago the basin had 54 percent of the normal snowpack on March 20. 

The Oregon Department of Forestry does not have any immediate plans to start staffing for fire season or issue fire restrictions early, but that could change with the weather, said George Ponte, Central Oregon District forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry in Prineville. The lack of snowfall has left grasses in forests around Central Oregon ready to burn, he said. Snow typically crunches down grasses, lowering the likelihood of the grasses holding a flame once the snow has melted. Without snow, the grasses are taller and warm weather could dry them out.

After Gov. Kate Brown declared drought emergencies in two Southern Oregon counties, Crook County officials appealed to the governor to be included.

The Bend Bulletin writes:

“As you are aware, annual water supplies, snowpack, and rainfall that are typically available for irrigation and domestic use within Crook County are stored in various lakes and reservoirs throughout our county,” reads the letter dated Wednesday and signed by two of the three members of the Crook County Court. “These reserves are currently significantly below average, and estimated projections for precipitation do not provide much relief.”

Ochoco and Prineville reservoirs were at 73 percent full and 78 percent full, respectively, Thursday, and a lack of snowpack means water in both will likely be drawn down earlier than normal this year, according to the Crook County Office of Emergency Management. Indicative of the dire snow situation, the Ochoco Meadows automated snow site — located at 5,430 feet in the Ochoco Mountains — had no snow as of Thursday. A drought declaration from Gov. Brown would allow the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Water Resources Department and Office Emergency Management, as well as other state agencies, to help Crook County. The county Office of Emergency Management reported the drought could affect agriculture by mid- or late summer.

In California, a state mired in drought conditions for years, the governor has proposed $1 billion in spending to mitigate the threat by the dry conditions, the Associated Press reports.

The proposed legislation includes $128 million to ease dire water shortages in some communities; the financial struggles of unemployed farm workers in the Central Valley; and dry conditions that contribute to wildfires. The rest of the funding comes from voter-approved bonds — including a $7.5 billion water measure passed in November — to speed up water projects that can help communities prepare for future dry years.

“We need to get the money out the door now for shovel-ready projects and existing water programs that only need funding to get started,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon said. “No delay. No red tape.”