Umatilla County officials prepare as wildfires burn in an ‘unprecedented’ season

Starting July 10, the forest will enter a Phase C restriction, meaning that all public use activities will be prohibited for the foreseeable future.

UMATILLA COUNTY, Ore. — Wildfires continue to burn across the Pacific Northwest in what is being called an “unprecedented” and early season.

Now, officials with the Umatilla National Forest said they’re moving into a Phase C restriction starting Saturday, July 10. This is the highest level of restriction, meaning that campfires, chainsaws, smoking outside of a vehicle, and driving off of the road are now prohibited activities for the foreseeable future.

Darcy Weseman, the public affairs officer for the Umatilla National Forest, said the wildfires are due in a large part to “drought conditions, wind, and hot and dry weather.”

“This is a much earlier than average fire season for this level of fires,” Weseman said.

Weseman said there are multiple ways that they utilize to prepare for the fire season.

One is by using management tools like controlled burning to protect communities and their surrounding areas.

“Outside of fire season, the service really works to actively manage the landscape through a mechanical thinning and prescribed burning with a goal of reducing fuel loadings and then helping create more resilience to the landscape for fire,” Weseman said.

Another way is by adding seasonal firefighters to the permanent fire workforce.

“We have staff locally and they’re available to respond to any new starts in the forest,” Weseman said. “Those fire crews are out patrolling during the summer.”

Weseman added that they also hire fire personnel whose job it is to staff towers from “prominent viewpoints throughout the summer to be able to spot smoke and report early.”

They also keep an eye on 16 operational smoke detection cameras at 15 sites in northeast and central Oregon, courtesy of the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“We actually have a center at the Interagency Dispatch Center in Redmond and there they have monitors,” Weseman said. “Those individuals will watch the cameras to see if they spot any fires. In addition, the cameras have software that when they monitor for smoke, they ping on an alarm so the monitors can identify that there’s a fire.”

Weseman noted that a community meeting was held in Esoten Friday night to inform the public on the current conditions of the fires spreading in Umatilla County.

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