Unless weather forecasters are way off and rain soaks the woods in the next few days, hunters should expect to have few opportunities when the modern rifle deer season opens Saturday.
It's the single most popular hunting season: last year, more than 11,000 modern rifle hunters sought deer in Cowlitz, Lewis and Wahkiakum counties.
Because of the record drought, most private timberlands in Southwest Washington are closed to all entry, including walk-in.
Weyerhaeuser Co. has closed all of its lands in Washington and Oregon. With 420,000 acres around Longview, Weyerhaeuser is the largest private timber holder in Southwest Washington. "We want to make our lands available to hunters," said company spokesman Anthony Chavez, but the fire danger won't allow it.
Longview Timber Corp. has also has closed its woods, and the Ryderwood Tree Farm owned by Sierra Pacific is also off-limits. So is Hancock Forest Management land near Glenwood, Wash., and in Oregon.
The Weather Service forecast calls for a chance of rain on Friday and rain likely Saturday through Monday.
"A change to set weather is expected beginning Friday," with a series of storms expected to sweep into the region, according to a Weather Statement issued Tuesday. "There is a lot of uncertainty in the timing and amount of rain expected, but there is fair confidence that these storms will end the current dry spell."
It's hard to predict when timber companies will reopen their woods, however. Timber managers consider the moisture content of fuels, humidity, wind direction and the forecast when deciding whether to allow the public on their lands.
Barry Armstrong, manager of the Ryderwood Tree Farm, said it would take adequate rainfall and a forecast for continued for wet weather for the Sierra Pacific woods to reopen.
Aaron Schmidt, district fire operations manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, said it would take "multiple days of wetting rain" of at least one-tenth of an inch before the fire danger has subsided. Sprinkles on misty mornings don't count as wetting rains, he said.
A good sign is shift of wind direction, Schmidt said. Typical moist flows off the ocean have replaced dry east winds. However, forests are still "at a critical mass for dryness," he said.
Unlike private timber companies, the DNR still allows public access on its lands. It owns blocks of forest along Lewis River Road, near Merrill Lake and between the North and South forks of the Toutle River. Hunters may not have campfires on DNR lands.
"They must be careful — above careful — vigilant with fires," Schmidt said. "Even smoking in the woods is really potentially dangerous right now."
Most of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is open to the public, though the Mount Adams Wilderness is closed because of the 20,000-acre Cascade Creek fire. And Road 21 near Packwood is closed because of the 250-acre South Point blaze.
On the Gifford Pinchot, fires are allowed only in established campgrounds.
Though the state and federal lands are open, they aren't the most productive places for deer hunting. The harvest is usually higher on game units on the now-closed private lands.
One option for hunters this weekend will be to head west.
Hancock's Cathlamet Tree Farm is open for walk-in access only. Hancock's lands in Pacific County south of Naselle are open.
Another option is to do a rain dance. "We're hoping for rain, but nothing is a foregone conclusion," Schmidt said.
Timber companies have phone numbers and websites that hunters can check for updated information.
- Longview Timber: 442-7619, www.longviewtimber.com.
- Weyerhaeuser St. Helens Tree Farm hot line: 866-636-6531.
- Weyerhaeuser Oregon lands hot line: 888-741-5403.
- Hancock Forest Management Cathlamet Tree Farm: 360-795-3653.
- Sierra Pacific Ryderwood Tree Farm: 360-623-1299.