Kitzhaber: 2013 is worst fire season in a decade

GLENDALE, Ore. (AP) Gov. John Kitzhaber predicts hot, dry conditions this year are setting the stage for a long and busy fire season that he says is on track to be Oregon's worst in more than 10 years.

The 2013 season may be matched only by the 2002 Biscuit Fire that scorched a half-million acres and burned until the end of the year, said Kitzhaber, who was also governor during that fire. He said Saturday the lightning-sparked Douglas Complex of wildfires is the "No. 1 (wildfire) concern for the federal government."

"This is one of the worst fire seasons we've had in years, probably worse than 2002," Kitzhaber said in a phone interview from Glendale, outside Oregon's largest wildfire. "They're making progress, but think about the magnitude of this risk, and remember that it's only (Aug. 3.)"

Kitzhaber said the state is seeking assistance from other states and Canada and said he will brief the leadership of the Legislature this weekend on the conditions of two wildfires, including one burning more than 30,000 acres in southwest Oregon.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley also toured the area. There are about 5,200 people working on the blaze, including private personnel and the Oregon National Guard.

Residents from 105 houses got evacuation notices last week, but the improving situation allowed 45 to return.

Smoke from the wildfires has worsened air quality to unhealthy-to-hazardous levels across southwest Oregon and into Northern California for the past week. Outdoor activities have been canceled and hospitals have seen an uptick in emergency room visits due to breathing complaints.

"It's incredibly smoky when you get down to Glendale," Kitzhaber said. "We're monitoring for air quality. (Smoke was) just starting to rise when I left."

Conditions on Saturday could boost the Douglas Complex of wildfires, which is burning on Bureau of Land Management and private lands.

The state appears to have caught a break as no large wildfire has yet to result from the more than 4,000 lightning strikes that hit Central and Eastern Oregon on Thursday and early Friday.

Nearly 4,500 firefighters statewide are battling the blazes that have charred more than 40,000 acres of forestland in the state.

Kitzhaber praised the inter agency coordination on the fires but said one of his chief concerns is the Big Windy complex of fires in Josephine and Curry counties, which has not been contained and is burning on more than 6,000 acres.

Kitzhaber has already declared a state of emergency, but said he believes that mandatory evacuations are unlikely for the Douglas Complex.

"I think we're OK for now," he said.