Blazes set by massive lightning strikes are top 2021 fire concern
A statewide swath of lightning strikes is the "trigger event" that most worries Oregon fire officials planning for what could be a second consecutive severe fire season.
Lightning strikes are "a typical event that we have on an annual basis that gives me most concern," said Doug Grafe, the Oregon Department of Forestry fire chief.
Grafe and other state fire, emergency, environmental and health officials held a media call Thursday, June 3, to lay out strategies to try to keep 2021 from looking like 2020.
Firefighters plan for the worst and hope for the best. Sometimes they get a nightmare like the Labor Day 2020 fires that burned more than 1 million acres in Oregon, destroyed thousands of homes and left 11 dead.
The fires also sent billows of ash that filled the Willamette Valley. Winds drove the toxic flow eastward that for a few days made the air quality from Portland to Pendleton the worst in the world.
Oregon is still digging out from those fires that broke out amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the call, leading emergency, fire and health officials talked about improvements since last year. Better warning systems. An initial wave of 30 aircraft with better instrumentation to see flames through smoke. Prepositioned fire crews and federal agency assets that are in Oregon because they never went home last year.
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Legislature The Oregon House's Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery has pushed through a slate of bills designed to make it easier for Oregonians to recover.
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Wildfire survey The Oregon Values and Beliefs Center polled Oregonians in May regarding wildfire.
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AccuWeather The agency offers an overall look at the entire West Coast, with a focus on Oregon.
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An air-quality blog will give faster readings on where air quality is becoming dangerous. In light of the 2020 fires, the state is adding more Spanish language materials to reach communities that may not be plugged into the existing fire-warning systems.
An effort is being made to include more nondigital warnings for those who don't have cell phones or internet.
One of the positive aspects of last year's fires is that they are fresh in the minds of officials and residents. Evacuation plans can be used again and the devastation could make residents more likely to heed warnings.
Early signs show 2021 has the makings of another bad fire year. With a prolonged drought in western North America and hotter temperatures earlier in the year, the idea of a "fire season" has become outdated.
"It's a fire year," said Mariana Ruiz-Temple, the state fire marshal.
The cumulative effect is a much higher likelihood of megafires in numbers and sizes once thought unimaginable. "These types of fires are not the types of fires we saw maybe 20 or 30 years ago," Ruiz-Temple said.
"These types of fires are not the types of fires we saw maybe 20 or 30 years ago." — Mariana Ruiz-Temple, state fire marshal
Where danger may lurk
Oregon already has been hit with 300 fires this year, twice the average over the past decade.
More than 2,000 acres have burned, four times more than normal at this time of year. A wildfire on Wednesday, June 2, briefly closed Interstate 84 in the Columbia River Gorge.
Pinpointing when and where things could get bad is impossible. But peak conditions for fires this summer will migrate westward.
In June, the greatest danger will be on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. July will move the fire danger focus into the Klamath Basin. Last but far from least will be the thickly forested southwest around Medford.
"Really, the bulls-eye is relative to drought conditions and that drives fire potential," Grafe said.
Last year's fires came down the river valleys of the western Cascades and toward suburban Portland, Salem, Eugene and Roseburg. The rapidly growing area around Bend has been flagged in studies as a prime spot for a fire in forested areas that are increasingly populated.
But no two disasters are exactly alike. Grafe said the Labor Day 2020 fires were the result of an unprecedented collision of weather events: a cold front, severe winds from the east and drought conditions.
An exact repeat of the conditions of 2020 is a longshot, Grafe said. But there are earlier disastrous fire seasons that 2021 is mimicking.
Grafe said the conditions in late spring this year remind him of 2013 which, until 2020, was the worst fire year in Oregon since 1951.
Past as prologue?
In the spring of 2013, the U.S. Weather Service fire forecast maps showed a drought-stricken thick line stretching from San Diego to Mount Shasta in California.
North of the Siskiyou Mountains, the maps' red-hued blob widened to take in all but the northwest tip of Oregon, along with parts of southcentral Washington, central Idaho, northern Nevada and as far east as parts of Montana.
The map proved ominously prescient for Oregon. Near the end of July, a line of lightning storms ignited 80 blazes that firefighting teams raced to tamp down. Fires broke out in mostly wilderness areas in the northeastern part of the state and the flank of Mount Hood. Crews fought flames around Abbott Butte near Sunriver and Bend.
But the biggest hit was in the southwest. Five big blazes tore through the tinder-dry forest. The largest was the Douglas Complex centered around Glendale, just west of Interstate 5 between Myrtle Creek and Grants Pass. Billows of ash choked the Rouge River Valley.
By August 2013, there were nine large, uncontained fires. For nearly two weeks, federal emergency management officials rated it the worst fire in the nation. Then firefighters got a break: A surprise cold front that dumped rain on some of the flames.
Newspaper stories of the time called it the worst fire season since the Tillamook Burn in 1951. In the end, just under 200,000 square acres were burned, four homes were destroyed and four firefighters were killed.
The shocking level of damage at the time is a quarter of the 2020 acreage, with much higher casualty and property damage than in 2013.
But 2021 is not 2013. Much has changed in the eight years since those fires. Oregon's population then was 3.92 million. The new U.S. Census data shows 500,000 more people live in Oregon today.
While the Portland metro area is growing, the fastest growing area is Deschutes County, which saw a nearly 25% population increase between the 2010 and 2020 census. The growth has pushed more housing into forested areas, in what the U.S. Fire Administration calls the "wildland-urban interface."
If the forests burn again this summer, there are more high-tech tools and strategic planning than in 2013, but stretched to cover a more densely populated landscape.
Both federal and state agencies have taken steps to remove fuel from forest floors and to do prescribed burns to preempt possible fire paths. But forests and property will be a lesser priority given the population realities.
"Life safety is the No. 1 priority, it is our paramount priority," said Jason Miner, Gov. Kate Brown's natural resources policy director.
Grafe, the state forest fire chief, said that in the end it will be up to residents to prepare their homes with supplies of water, food and batteries. Masks used during the COVID-19 pandemic can help slow inhalation of particulates from smoke.
If the fires grow, residents need to look for alerts and evacuate as soon as told.
"I am asking every Oregonian to plan on being a disaster survivor," Grafe said.
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