High Desert wildfires: Blazing toward record?

Could be year for record books here, across Northwest

A record year for fires on High Desert?

BEND, Ore. - In eawrly June, it was smoke-filled skies over Bend, now smoke blankets nearly everywhere else on the High Desert.

"In Deschutes County -- in Bend, we are surrounded by wildfire right now,"  Project Wildfire Program Coordinator Alison Green said Monday.

There are roughly 20 fires burning across Central Oregon, some of them massive. From Warm Springs to the Ochoco National Forest to Camp Sherman, fire season is in full swing -- early, too.

"We haven't seen one like this in Central Oregon," Green said.

The abundance of wildfires comes as no surprise to fire experts like Green who predicted droughts this year would be severe, fuel would be extra-dry and weather would be extreme.

But could this be Central Oregon's worst fire season yet?

Deschutes County Forester Ed Keith said not so far.

"I think it's a really early start to the fire season," Keith said. "It's not uncommon for us to have large wildfires, it's just that there is a lot going on."

Keith has been working in Oregon forests for close to two decades. He can name several other bad years for fire in Central Oregon.

"(The year" 2002 comes to mind. That was the year we had the Biscuit Fire in southwest Oregon, several other fires in central and southern Oregon," Keith said. "And 2003 was the B&B Fire," at nearly 100,000 acres the largest in Deschutes National Forest history.

But Keith also admits this fire season is still early.

"We still are going into what would normally be our busiest time of the year," Keith said. "If the trend continues, we're on track to have a year for the record books for sure."

But as far as predicting what the rest of the High Desert's fire season will look like, even the experts said they can't say.

"The conditions are going to predict extreme fire behavior," Green said. "It will just depend if we have the (lightning) strikes on the ground."

Green said Central Oregon is also in year four of a predicted 10-year drought. She said fire conditions are expected to only get worse in the coming years, but whether that leads to more wildfires is dependent on Mother Nature -- and humans.

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