Fire, ODF, Washington County

Concern over fire danger mounts as April temperatures rise

A series of burn piles burn near Highway 6 between Banks and Gales Creek on March 24, 2019. Photo: Chas Hundley

With a mid-April forecast showing temperatures in the low 80’s, depending on which forecast you read, local and state fire officials are concerned about fire danger.

“While the unseasonably dry weather is pulling Oregonians outside, it’s also spurring firefighters into action,” the Oregon Department of Forestry said in a press release issued Tuesday morning. 

According to ODF, the state has already seen nearly three times the average number of fires that have usually occurred by this time of the year. 

“For us, the message is always that wildfire really has no season. I’ve had wildfires as early as spring break, and some even in the dead of winter when we get a few days of clear cold east winds,” said Forest Grove Fire & Rescue Public Information Officer Dave Nemeyer in a message to the Banks Post.

“Every one of those early fires was started by an out of control burn pile,” Nemeyer said.

Less than 30 minutes after that message, Nemeyer’s point was underlined when crews from Forest Grove Fire & Rescue and Banks Fire District raced to an out-of-control burn pile west of Banks on NW Strohmeyer Rd at around 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday. 

An on-site property owner was able to keep the blaze from spreading into nearby trees, and fire crews quickly mopped up the scene.

“When burning, have an established clear space of dirt around the burn pile and never leave a burn pile unattended,” Forest Grove Fire & Rescue said in a tweet. 

On ODF-protected lands, 70 fires have burned 402 acres as of Tuesday morning. Of those 70 fires, 40 were out of control burn piles, torching 154 acres, according to the ODF. 

Fire season has yet to start for the state or the local region. Locally, July 1 saw the beginning of last year’s catastrophic fire season, with the entire state entering fire season on July 6. 

“Just because fire season has not been declared does not mean fire danger does not exist,” said ODF Fire Prevention Coordinator Tom Fields. “The window of opportunity to clean up around homes and dispose of woody debris in a safe manner is narrowing each year. Now is the time to reassess and wait for better conditions.”

Fields urged caution if burning debris, and noted that the window to safely burn may already be gone until late fall or winter. 

If conditions are safe to burn, ODF said, these steps should be followed. 

— Place yard debris in an open area away from structures, trees and power lines.

— Create small piles (4’ x 4’) to better manage the burn.

— Cover portions of piles with polyethylene plastic (landscape material) to keep a portion dry for lighting later (preferably in late fall or winter).

— When conditions improve, check with your local fire agency for any regulations in place.

— Never burn under windy conditions.

— To maintain containment, create a perimeter around the pile at a minimum of 3 feet, scraped clear to bare mineral soil.

— Keep a shovel and charged hose nearby to manage the burn.

— Make sure the pile is dead out before leaving.

— Return periodically over several weeks to make sure the pile is still out: No heat, no smoke.

Forest Grove Fire & Rescue’s Nemeyer also advised similar steps, and noted that those choosing to burn should soak their burn piles down when done, and revisit them a week later and soak them again to ensure that any underground roots are out as well. Nemeyer also stressed the importance of defensible space around one’s home.

Chas Hundley is the editor of the Banks Post and sister news publications the Gales Creek Journal and the Salmonberry Magazine. He grew up in Gales Creek and has a cat.

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