Fire Season Over for Half of OR

Jack Forrest

oregonlive.com

(MCT)

Half of Oregon is officially free of fire season, while the state’s eastern and southern regions need significantly more rain before they’re in the clear, experts say.

Record-breaking September rainfall, longer nights and more humid air have signaled the beginning of the end of a historic 2021 fire season. But fall rains have a decades-long drought to overcome in most of the West, meaning thicker fuels like timber aren’t yet saturated by the season’s precipitation.

“We got what seemed like a lot of rain, but it very quickly soaked into the soil and is running off,” Larry O’Neill, an Oregon State professor studying how weather impacts wildfires, said Thursday. “So it was a very good start to a good wet season, but it really didn’t do much to decrease the severity of the drought conditions.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry has announced an end to the fire season in five of its 10 districts. Those districts include Washington, Clatsop, Columbia, Tillamook, Lane, Benton, Lincoln, Polk and Yamhill counties, as well as the southern part of Linn County.

The five districts that include most of southern and eastern Oregon still remain in fire season.

The end to fire season lifts restrictions on industrial operations in Oregon’s forests — most notably the need for a firewatch service, or an on-site worker trained in firefighting.

Weather forecasters expect Oregon to get above-average rainfall this autumn, but O’Neill is tempering his expectations. Forecasters also expected last fall to be wetter than average, he said, but the season ended up being far drier.

“We’ve had this trend, especially the last 10 years, where we’ve had dry falls,” O’Neill said. “So basically, we need to actually see the rain in the rain gauge before we can really be sure.”

If history is any indication, short stints of warm, dry October weather can slow progress made by early-fall rains, O’Neill said.

The threat of wildfire also never truly goes away, said John Saltenberger, a fire weather meteorologist for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.

A wildfire can still crop up in the middle of winter, Saltenberger said. But the convergence of extreme fire weather, dry conditions and ignition sources such as lightning or campfire sparks is what makes wildfires particularly costly and dangerous.

The odds of such a convergence are already decreasing, Saltenberger said, as the region sees fewer thunderstorms and more rain that dampens fuels like timber and brush.

“That’s not to say it’s impossible,” he said, “but it’s unlikely.”

Historically there’s a small jump in new fires when Oregon’s deer hunting season begins in early October, but those fires rarely cause widespread damage, Saltenberger said.

LOOKING BACK

Oregon’s 2021 fire season will go down as one of the state’s all-time worst, Saltenberger said, but it’s been far less destructive than the 2020 fire season.

At least 1,863 fires have burned over 800,000 acres in Oregon so far this year, according to the state Department of Forestry. Nearly 2,000 fires burned over 1 million acres last year.

President Joe Biden declared Oregon’s 2020 fire season a federal emergency, giving the state support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and prompting the Oregon Office of Emergency Management to better document the season’s human toll.

Last year’s wildfires killed nine people and destroyed 4,132 homes, according to the state emergency management agency.

Damage from the 2021 season has been far less documented, though state officials say at least 91 homes were destroyed in the 413,765-acre Bootleg fire — the fourth-largest blaze in Oregon history. A firefighter from Medford also died when he was hit by a falling tree while fighting the Middle Fork Complex of wildfires east of Eugene.

But this year’s fires burned largely in unpopulated or sparsely populated areas, sparing the state from the level of damage seen in 2020.

“There were some fires, and we lost a couple iconic lookout towers and burned through some beloved wilderness areas,” O’Neill said. “I really feel that we were very fortunate, at least here in northwest Oregon, because going into August things were looking so much bleaker.”

— Jack Forrest; jforrest@oregonian.com; 541-222-9808; Follow on Twitter @Jackmandu55

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit oregonlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

No posts to display