Forest Service fish biologist Mike Riehle confers with a Sisters citizen at a Forest Service open house on Thursday, April 11.
photo by Jim Cornelius
Forest Service fish biologist Mike Riehle confers with a Sisters citizen at a Forest Service open house on Thursday, April 11. photo by Jim Cornelius
Local foresters covered a lot of territory in a public open house on Thursday, April 11 — but one issue loomed over the Sister Fire Hall Community Room like a column of smoke: Fire season is on its way.

“Everybody always wants to know what fire season is going to look like when you bump into them in town,” said James Osbourne, Sisters Ranger District fire management officer.

Osbourne walked through the Northwest Interagency Coordinating Center (NWCC) seasonal fire potential model with the two-dozen or so local citizens who turned out for the open house.

The good news is that the heavy late snowfall that hammered Sisters at the end of February has left the snowpack in the mountains at 110 percent of normal. Unfortunately, however, that’s not enough to break ongoing drought.

“With that moisture, they’re still predicting drought for us,” Osbourne said.

Models are predicting a “warmer than typical May-June-July,” which could make for an active fire season. The next fire potential outlook will be released in May and can be accessed at https://gacc.nifc.gov/nwcc/predict/outlook.aspx.

Fire was on the minds of the participants in a Q&A session. The first question asked for a comparison between Sisters’ situation and that of Paradise, California, which was destroyed by wildfire last summer.

Osbourne and Sisters Ranger District timber sale coordinator Steve Orange offered some assurances.

“We’ve done a lot of work around here in the last 20 years,” Osborne noted.

That work includes prescribed burning and thinning projects to make forests healthier and less susceptible to catastrophic wildfire, and to make homes in the urban-wildland interface more defensible.

“We’ve done a lot of logging right in people’s backyards,” Orange noted, citing projects near Black Butte Ranch and Crossroads as examples.

The SAFR (Sisters Area Fuels Reduction) project was designed to decrease hazardous fuels accumulations within the wildland-urban interface adjacent to the city of Sisters and surrounding communities to reduce the risk of high-intensity wildfire.

Orange noted that the recent Melvin Butte project reduced fuels south of Sisters, where the threat of fire could be significant.

“You’ll see major changes going up the 16 Road to the snowpark,” he said.

In comparison to Paradise, “we’re well ahead of where they were,” Osbourne said. “That said, we’re not out of the woods, obviously.”

In an ongoing effort to, as Osbourne puts it, “fight fire out in the woods and not on people’s doorstep,” the Sisters Ranger District will engage in prescribed burns of about 650 acres total this spring.

While fire is the greatest concern for an area that has seen 50 percent of the Sisters Ranger District territory burn since 2002, there are other issues of pressing concern. One citizen asked about illegal dumping and “off-site” camping in the forest.

SRD Law Enforcement Officer Fred Perl acknowledged that dumping is a significant issue.

“It goes on relentlessly,” he said.

Perl relies on citizen tips when they see violations, and he noted, “I try to prosecute every case that comes across… my desk.”

However, Sisters District Ranger Ian Reid acknowledged that keeping up with dumping could be a full-time gig.

“If we devoted all of our resources to trash, we wouldn’t get a lot of other things done,” he said.

Dispersed camping in the forest, often by homeless people, is also an issue. There is a 14-day limit on how long a person can stay in a spot, and when they move they’re supposed to move five miles. It’s up to Perl to enforce that.

Perl acknowledged that dealing with homelessness in Sisters “is a community issue for all of us,” and noted that he works consistently with other community agencies and citizens to address the issues associated with it.

“It’s a very difficult issue to deal with, but we are dealing with it,” he said.