(Update: Adding video, comments from Deschutes National Forest)
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The Deschutes National Forest says the warmer weather plus drought conditions, paired with human error and more activity in the woods, could be a dangerous combination.
The agency has been warning Central Oregonians of drier than average weather conditions that puts the region at a higher risk for wildfires.
Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman Jaimie Olle told NewsChannel 21 Thursday the agency asks people to use campfires only in designated campfire rings within designated campgrounds and to make sure the area they choose to visit is actually open.
Olle said both the Paulina Lake and Finley Butte fires within the past week were human-caused. The exact causes are still under investigation.
“If we’re putting folks out there on these fires, that’s unnecessary risk for them, if they are human-caused starts,” Olle said.
She said the U.S. Forest Service and fire crews have been responding to human-caused fires “almost daily,” and that most of the fires have been due to improperly discarded cigarettes or unattended and abandoned campfires.
“Those fires right now, our folks have been able to handle,” Olle said. “But if we were to get a large lightning storm through the area, those resources would be incredibly taxed, and we would eventually overwhelm our local firefighting resources.”
She said more people have been venturing out into the woods since the pandemic began, which can contribute to overcrowding in popular areas and increase the risk of spreading coronavirus and accidental fires.
Increased use of the Three Sisters, Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson wilderness areas have led to trail degradation, more trash, human waste and illegal campfires in the past.
These issues led the U.S. Forest Service to propose a limited entry system in the wilderness areas, which was set to begin on May 22 but was delayed until next year, due to COVID-19.
Now, with the closures of some areas due to the virus, Olle said it seems the open campsites and trails have been even busier than before.
“Each weekend is looking more and more like a holiday weekend,” Olle said. “Sometimes we’re seeing as many people we would see during a holiday weekend, and sometimes we’re seeing twice as many folks (as) we would see on a holiday weekend.”
She said it's important for visitors to check the Deschutes National Forest website to make sure the area they intend to visit is actually open. She also encourages people to consider visiting less popular areas to prevent overcrowding and spreading COVID-19.