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Smoke rose over the small community of Rowena last weekend, after a wildfire broke out in shrubs and brush near the town at the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge. On Sunday night, the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office told residents to get ready to evacuate.

That didn’t prove necessary — the blaze, which was human-caused, was contained at about 15 acres — but the fire was a stark reminder that the Pacific Northwest is entering a wildfire season expected to be more active than usual because of lingering drought conditions. And this year, firefighters and their support staff will also have to contend with an added challenge: a global pandemic that has forced crews to practice distancing and put a pinch on firefighting budgets.

Firefighting will look different this year, said Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Command Center, which oversees firefighting efforts in the region, as crews contend with new protocols aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

“This is not a cookbook approach,” Connolly said. “We’re rewriting the narrative of how we’re entering the season.”

Just what kind of fire season hits the Pacific Northwest remains to be seen, but while there are encouraging early signs, long-term forecasts look more ominous.

“I am biased on the worry side.”

One of the ways fire risk is measured is the relative levels of moisture in large pieces of dead wood, something John Saltenberger, the fire weather program manager at the coordination center, watches closely.

An unusually wet June left parts of Oregon in pretty good shape heading into July, at least in the short term. Moisture levels in flammable fuels have remained high, pushing fire risk down, a welcome sign to Saltenberger.

“We’re starting off pretty slow,” he said. “Going into the Fourth of July with drizzle is really good news for us, but I am biased on the worry side.”

That bias comes from other parts of the state that have received less precipitation.

About 95 percent of the state is in some stage of drought, according to the U.S Drought Monitor. Swaths of central and southwest Oregon, as well as the Willamette Valley, are considered to be in a severe drought.

As temperatures rise and those fuels dry out — expected by the middle of July east of the Cascades — parts of central and eastern Oregon will face the “potential for large, costly fires,” according to a monthly outlook published by the National Interagency Fire Center.

By August, nearly the entire state, with the exception of a small corner of northwest Oregon, will be at above-average risk for large fires that are expensive to fight, even as the state struggles to find the funds to pay for new firefighting strategies.

If and when those fires do start, the way that firefighters respond will be within the constraints of an ongoing pandemic.

New landscape, bigger footprint

Firefighting, like pretty much everything else, will look different this year as society continues to grapple with the spread of the coronavirus.

Training regimens have changed. In normal years, every firefighter, including returning veterans, is required to get re-certified, but this year that requirement was waived for some who were previously trained. New recruits still go through the certification process, but it takes longer because of distancing protocols. Still, Connolly said staffing levels are at or near where they have been in years past.

The biggest changes will come once land starts to burn.

Connolly said that crews will adopt a “module as one” approach, in which interactions between units are drastically limited, if not eliminated. Fire camps, which can at times resemble small cities, will look more like small suburbs, with crews spread out over larger areas to allow for space between tents.

In years past, firefighters often went into the smaller, rural communities where wildfires often pose the biggest threat to life and property. That likely won’t be happening this year, Connolly said.

“They will eat together and sleep together,” she said. “They will not intermingle.”

All of those protocols will make some aspects of an already complicated logistical operation even more so. Firefighters will need additional vehicles to spread personnel out. They’ll need new items at camps, such as hand sanitizer and face coverings. They’ll need to do laundry more frequently.

All of this will take more people behind the scenes to figure out how to make it all work so firefighters can do their jobs.

But Connolly is confident the various agencies that fight wildfires in the state — the Oregon Department of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and dozens of smaller fire departments — are up for the challenge.

“These are folks that are used to adapting,” she said.

Fires and the virus

Fires come in two flavors, Saltenberger said: natural- and human-caused. The vast majority of naturally caused fires are the result of lightning strikes, but this year, they only make up a small fraction of all the ignitions logged in the state.

So far in 2020, of the 457 wildfires reported in Oregon, more than 85 percent were caused by people, according to Connolly, like the blaze that burned near Rowena last weekend. All it takes is an errant cigarette butt, an unattended campfire or negligence around fireworks, like the one one that sparked the devastating Eagle Creek Fire that burned nearly 50,000 acres in the gorge in 2017.

Human-caused fires are problematic for a couple reasons, Connolly said. Each diverts resources away from naturally caused fires, for which there is no effective prevention. But each human-caused fire also puts more firefighters in fire camps or in the vicinity of rural communities, potentially providing opportunities for the virus to spread.

Connolly knows that many folks, after months of limited time outdoors, are looking to enjoy Oregon’s natural beauty as the weather warms, but she encouraged residents to know the rules of where they are heading, noting that fireworks are illegal to use or possess on public lands in the state.

“I look at every human start as preventable,” she said. “We need help from the public.”