2021 IN REVIEW: Climate change affects Washington County, too
The pandemic isn't the only global event that shaped the course of 2021 here in Oregon.
Climate change driven by greenhouse gas emissions — especially carbon dioxide and methane, which together account for 90% of the country's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — has brought hotter summers and more bitter winters to the West Coast. Those emissions mean more of the Sun's radiation is trapped in Earth's atmosphere, rather than bouncing back into space, than was the case before the industrial era. That added energy can disrupt long-established weather patterns and have wide-ranging effects on the climate.
The Willamette Valley was hammered in February by one of the worst ice storms in recent memory in western Oregon. The Interstate 5 corridor south of Portland — including Tigard, Tualatin and Wilsonville in Washington County — was particularly hard-hit.
A 150-year-old oak tree fell in Cook Park under the weight of accumulated ice. In Tualatin, so many trees were downed and limbs and branches snapped that a debris collection site had to be set up in Tualatin High School's sprawling parking lot. With the power out and roads blocked by debris in parts of Wilsonville, emergency response team volunteers used radios to keep in touch.
"This is the worst storm since 1995," said Tualatin's maintenance services manager Clay Reynolds, assessing the damage, "in terms of tree damage and resulting debris."
Close to 300,000 Oregonians in all lost power, with the heaviest impacts in Salem and Woodburn. For some customers, it took close to a week for PGE, Pacific Power and other providers to restore electricity, leaving them cold and in the dark in the meantime.
Four people died, with those deaths attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning, as some people who lost power attempted to warm their homes with generators or heaters. Dozens more were sickened.
But that was neither the only, nor the worst, deadly extreme weather event to hit northwest Oregon this year.
A highly unusual "heat dome" — an area of high pressure in the atmosphere essentially locked in place by stationary low-pressure areas — settled over the Pacific Northwest in late June. In much the same way that a pressure cooker works, this high-pressure air caused the mercury to spike to historic levels.
An all-time high temperature of 114 degrees was recorded at the Hillsboro Airport on June 28. In Salem, at McNary Field, the temperature hit 117 degrees that same day — also a new record.
The heat wasn't a one-day phenomenon, either. Triple-digit temperatures lingered for the better part of a week. Heat waves that were only less intense by comparison, topping out around 105 degrees, roasted the region again in July and August.
Again, Washington County was spared the worst of it. The county's population boom has been relatively recent, with many newer homes and apartments having built-in air conditioning. Residents who were able to stay indoors and run their air conditioning stayed cool. Those who had to work outside, like a construction worker in Hillsboro who collapsed on the job on June 28 — that record-setting hottest day —and died days later of heat stress, or were forced to swelter indoors without access to cooling, suffered through temperatures too high for human habitation.
More than 100 Oregonians died during the extreme heat. Of 96 names released by the state medical examiner's office, at least three were Washington County residents.
If there is a silver lining to Oregon being pressure-cooked this past summer, it's that it finally pushed state regulators to adopt new workplace rules around extreme heat. That came as a relief to Sandra Martin, whose husband is a farmworker in Washington County and was sent home early on June 28, although not before some of his fellow workers reported experiencing heat exhaustion and trouble breathing.
"He's one those people that says, 'There's work. I have to go in and just see how long I can last,'" Martin told Pamplin Media Group in Spanish, days after the deadly heat wave. It's a predicament shared by many farmworkers, who are forced to choose between their own health and safety and earning enough money to feed their families.
Mercifully, the Portland area this year was spared a re-run of September 2020's apocalyptic skies, hazardous air and mass evacuations.
All the same, 2021 inflicted upon Oregon the third-largest single wildfire in its modern history, dating back to at least 1900: the Bootleg Fire.
The Bootleg Fire burned 200 miles to the south and east of the Willamette Valley, in the Klamath Basin near the California state line. For much of the time it was active in July and August, it was the United States' largest active wildfire, drawing national attention to Oregon and our worsening fire season.
While the Bootleg Fire was physically well removed from our communities, Pamplin Media Group wrote about how wildfires like Bootleg and the increasing fire danger across the West are prompting fire and forest management agencies to re-evaluate their "best practices."
Locally, the Game Hog Creek Fire was a challenge for firefighters to tackle when it broke out in the Tillamook State Forest in July. The fire never grew larger than 200 acres, and it burned in a remote area miles from the nearest population center. But because it was situated in rugged slash lands, firefighters couldn't just rely on heavy machinery or air support — they had to fight it by hand, as the Oregon Department of Forestry's Dave Luttrell described it in an interview with Pamplin Media Group.
"They often do what they call flanking maneuvers," Luttrell said. "They never try to take a fire head-on. They start at the back end, where it's not burning as hot, and they go around the edge."
Pamplin Media Group also spoke with tribal leaders and representatives, who argue that Oregon's forest management practices have contributed to worsening wildfires.
Oregon's first inhabitants would quite literally fight fire with fire. With deliberate, controlled burns that were limited in their size and scope, they cleared out dry brush, thinned out dense forests and molded a landscape in which wildfires had less room to grow and less fuel to burn.
"We are in a position that we can use some of those lessons drawn from the way our ancestors lived on our landscape, and we're able to do it with fire," Klamath Tribes official Steve Rondeau told Pamplin Media Group.
The Bureau of Land Management told Pamplin Media Group that it conducts prescribed burns and consults with tribal leaders. Rondeau said there is more that federal and state agencies can do — including standing back and giving tribes more say in how they manage their ancestral lands.
Time will tell, as global mean temperatures continue to creep higher and extreme weather events become less and less unusual, whether the approach that Salem and Washington, D.C., choose is the right one for our state.
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