A rainy late spring is delaying the start of fire season in Oregon, but state officials said Monday they still anticipate a challenging summer and fall.
Large fires are already blazing in New Mexico, and fire risk in the Northwest is expected to worsen as summer continues. During a press conference Monday, Gov. Kate Brown and officials from several Oregon agencies that deal with wildfires said they’re preparing for an intense fire season.
“We know from the past several years that we’re fighting fires of a new age, made more intense by the impacts of climate change,” Brown said. “Almost every fire season since I became governor has been more complex and more difficult, from Chetco Bar in 2017, to the Labor Day fires of 2020 and last year’s Bootleg Fire.”
The Chetco Bar fire, in southwest Oregon, burned nearly 200,000 acres. Five simultaneous fires that ignited around Labor Day in 2020 burned more than a million acres and destroyed more than 4,000 homes west of the Cascades. The Bootleg Fire, the third-largest in state history, burned more than 400,000 acres in southern Oregon last summer.
Despite late-spring storms that boosted the Cascades snowpack and poured rain on Portland and the Willamette Valley, most of the state remains in drought. Brown has declared drought emergencies in 15 counties so far this year.
In May 2021, national drought monitors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln classified all of Oregon as abnormally dry or in various stages of drought. So far this year, those researchers say northwest Oregon isn’t in dry or drought conditions, but much of the land east of the Cascades is classified as “exceptional” or “extreme” drought – the two highest conditions.
By the time drought reaches that level, wells can start running dry, lakes or reservoirs are very low, fish in rivers are affected by high water temperatures – and wildfires are harder to manage.
Drought throughout the state has put Oregon at even more risk than it was in 2021, said Travis Medema, the state’s deputy fire marshal. The level of drought in Klamath and Lake counties that resulted last year in the state’s third-largest wildfire is now present across most of southern, central and eastern Oregon.
“In terms of risk, I think Oregon sits at even larger risks than it did during the 2021 wildfire season due to the expanding drought and mega drought across Oregon, specifically south central, central and moving into eastern Oregon,” he said.
Mike Shaw, fire chief with the Oregon Department of Forestry, said it’s especially critical that people refrain from starting fires, whether intentionally or not.
Campers must check local restrictions before starting campfires and make sure they’re fully extinguished before leaving a campsite. If a former campfire isn’t cool to the touch, it hasn’t been fully extinguished. Oregonians should also avoid driving or parking over dry grass and make sure their vehicles aren’t trailing chains, mufflers or other parts that could spark a flame. People should also follow local rules for fireworks or burning debris and avoid both in dry areas or on windy days.
Even if the state manages to avoid any human-caused fires this year, firefighters will still have to battle fires caused by lightning, Shaw said. Permanent and seasonal workers with the Department of Forestry and the Office of the State Fire Marshal will be stationed throughout the state prepared to control fires, he said, but they can’t predict when and where lightning will strike.
“We know that we are going to have a fire season,” Shaw said. “We always do in Oregon. We know that we will have lightning-caused fires, and the big driver is how widespread and broad and far reaching is that lightning and does it come with moisture.”
This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.