The area under a red flag warning. Map courtesy of NWS.
April’s unseasonably warm weather has prompted the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning beginning Friday at 11 a.m. and ending at 10 p.m. the same day for much of northwest Oregon and beyond.
A red flag warning means, according to the National Weather Service, that “critical fire weather conditions are either occurring now, or will shortly.”
In this case, the combination of low relative humidity and windy conditions has the weather agency warning of the potential for extreme fire behavior.
Outdoor burning was banned until further notice on Wednesday at 12 p.m., and fire officials from the local and state level have been warning for several days now of extreme conditions that could lead to wildfires.
Asked about the red flag warning, Forest Grove Fire & Rescue spokesperson Dave Nemeyer, speaking from the grounds of the Gales Creek Fire Station, said that Forest Grove Fire & Rescue and other Washington County fire agencies met this morning and discussed the potential for a red flag warning Thursday morning.
“We’ve been wildfire ready for a couple weeks,” Nemeyer said, noting that staff from Forest Grove Fire & Rescue — which serves Gales Creek and other rural communities through an agreement with the Forest Grove Rural Fire Protection District — have been getting their gear and organizing it.
Beyond that, Nemeyer said that the concept of a “fire season” is changing for his agency, for more than one reason. Crews must be ready “365” days a year, he said.
Forest Grove and other fire agencies have headed south numerous times to fight California wildfires, oftentimes in the winter, under the Oregon Fire Mutual Aid System. That favor was most recently repaid by Californian crews during Oregon’s September 2020 wildfires.
Locally, though, Nemeyer says that the fires locally are human-caused.
“We cannot blame any of this on lightning. So it’s up to the folks to be smart. [Outdoor] burning is our number one cause of wildfire,” he said.
Nemeyer gestured to the recently-mowed grass on the grounds near the Gales Creek Fire Station, and noted that some might see the green grass and get the wrong assumption about dry fuels. He pointed next to a row of rhododendron bushes, and the dry leaves and debris resting underneath them.
“All that stuff underneath your landscaping is all dry and dead from being there all winter,” Nemeyer said.
That dry debris, mixed with low relative humidity, high temperatures — the Portland National Weather Service forecasts highs of 81 degrees for Saturday and Sunday — and wind, can become dangerous as landowners, agricultural operations, and logging crews burn yard debris and slash.
According to the Oregon Department of Forestry, the state has already seen nearly three times the average number of wildfires on ODF-protected lands than have usually occurred by this time of the year.
Nemeyer recommends common-sense approaches to maintaining defensible space around your home; a handy resource guide on the subject created by the Oregon State University can be found here.