Trend of dry, warm winters recipe for well-fueled wildfires
As of Friday, Sept. 4, the Forest Service was ready to declare 2020 a surprisingly successful year in terms of major wildfires.
Then Labor Day brought multiple fires to the state and turned 2020 into a historically bad year for Oregon.
Scott Oviatt with the Oregon Snow Survey said one major factor that contributed to the catastrophic late-season fires is how dry and warm it's been in Oregon — and not just this year.
In April, the Mount Hood region's snowpack had crawled its way up to around 100% of normal, giving at least a small semblance of hope that the area's water reserves may not leave communities in a drought. This was somewhat positive news after having a very dry and warmer than usual winter, which ended with a storm in January that — while it was good for ski conditions — didn't contribute much in terms of water.
Even though the snowpack peaked at normal in spring, it was depleted ahead of schedule this year because of rapid melt out. That led to an inability to maintain stream flows later in the year.
"It doesn't look that bad on paper right now, but we've had extreme periods of very warm and dry weather," Oviatt said. "And we had that in winter, too. We had a very dry December and remained fairly dry and warm until March. This trend has been happening multiple years in the last decade (and led to) rapid melt out. Where we are today is pretty much a result."
Locally, the year began with some reason for optimism. Ochoco Irrigation District Manager Bruce Scanlon said that the mountain snowpack in January and February suggested that Crook County would enjoy an average water year.
But the anticipated runoff that typically follows an average snowpack failed to materialize.
"Normally, we get some really good runoffs during April, but this year because of the unusually warm and dry conditions, the runoff just basically disappeared into the ground," Scanlon said. "So, our projected infills were not what we would consider close to average."
Ultimately, drought conditions became severe enough that Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of drought emergency in Crook County and many other counties throughout the state.
"Forecasted water supply conditions are not expected to improve and drought is likely to have significant economic impacts on the farm, forest, recreation, drinking water and natural resources sectors as well as impacts on fish and wildlife and other natural resources which are dependent on adequate precipitation and stream flows in these areas," the governor's order read. "Extreme conditions have already affected local growers and increased the potential for fire, a loss of economic stability, shortened growing season and decreased water supplies."
The local reservoirs have gotten more and more empty as the irrigation district keeps up with customer demands. Prineville Reservoir is down to 53,760 acre feet of water, which is 36% of capacity, and Ochoco Reservoir is even drier at 7,435 acre feet or 17% capacity.
Oviatt said the low humidity and dryness make perfect conditions for fire to grow.
He said all hopes for a rebound are not yet lost, but it will take more than scattered showers to recalibrate the state's water outlook moving forward.
"We're at the point where, if we could have a wet fall, we could recover," Oviatt said. "These fires, unfortunately, are here for a while. I just hope we don't have any more wind events. If we don't get substantial precipitation in the beginning of October, the alarm bells go off. We need to see something change to mitigate that. Let's hope for fall rains and cooler temperatures in the coming weeks."
To monitor the water year conditions, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/or/snow.
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