June 11, 2015 / 12:25 AM / 4 years ago

Lightning sparks early start to wildfire season in Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Firefighting crews in Oregon are battling 25 lightning-sparked blazes across the state, in an indication that the drought-parched state’s fire season is underway more than a month earlier than usual, officials said on Wednesday.

An interagency firefighting task force said the fires, the largest spanning 90 acres (36 hectares), were mostly in southwest and south-central Oregon. But adding to woes, the National Weather Service issued a so-called “red flag warning” for eastern Oregon on Wednesday, saying low humidity and gusty winds could result in “extreme fire behavior” through the evening.

The fires, this early in the season, prompted officials in the state to warn that drought and low mountain snowpack could lead to a fire season even more destructive than last year’s record-breaking string of conflagrations.

“We don’t have time to sit around and wring our hands about this. Fire season is here,” Dan Ferguson, spokesman for U.S. Bureau of Land Management operations in Oregon, said on Wednesday, after noting that typically the state would not see such a high threat of fire until August.

Though the blazes that have ignited so far were largely under control on Wednesday, fire threat levels have been elevated earlier in the year than usual, forcing firefighting agencies to mobilize equipment and brace themselves for the next threat.

“We burned more acres in Washington and Oregon last year than any year before. The Northwest got clobbered.” Ferguson said. “We’re dryer now than at this time last year, and we’re six weeks ahead of schedule.”

Two thirds of Oregon’s land mass is under a governor-declared state of drought emergency. Last year, when the drought was less severe, wildfires cost the state $280 million and charred 847,000 acres (343,000 hectares).

Bureau of Land Management measurements of the dryness of dead plant matter that would typically register at about 20 percent moisture are finding moisture levels down at 13 percent. Ferguson said even living trees were showing signs of drying out.

“I’ve been in this district for 35 years, and I can’t remember a time when the numerical moisture values have been this low,” Ferguson said.

Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler

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