Oregon

'I'm worried about the 2018 fire season'

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) -- "I'm worried about the upcoming fire season."

Those words come from John Saltenberger, the fire weather program manager for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. And he should know.

"I'm worried the trend in temperatures during fire season has been upward. We're seeing that reflected in earlier starts to fire season, higher intensity of fire danger during fire season," Saltenberger told KOIN 6 News. "And it looks like 2018 is going to be no exception."

He noted there's been an upward trend over the past 25 years in temperatures across the Pacific Northwest. Since 1995, he said, there have been only 3 Augusts that had below-average temperatures.

"Typically the higher the temperature gets, the lower the humidity gets," he said. "The combination of higher temperature and lower relative humidity boosts the cumulative effect of drying in our forests and brush lands -- which means they become that much more volatile to ignition and the spread of wildland fire."

Already this season, he's seeing fire danger index values equalling what they typically see in July. He also noted that the west side of the Cascades "has higher fire danger at this moment than east of the Cascades, simply because it's been drier, proportionally speaking, westside than eastside."

When fire season kicks in 

Fire seasons typically kick in around the 4th of July. Saltenberger said there's a few simple reasons for that.

"It's the combination of the heating along with longer days and the holiday weekends really usually brings things together around the 4th of July."

But he thinks it could begin sooner this year.

"I suspect May is going to go down in the record books as one of the warmest and driest," he said. But June is often cloudy, cool and rainy, "so I'm not eager to pull the trigger on painting a dire picture for the region for June."

He does expect the summer, overall to be unusually hot and dry and the wildfire threat to skyrocket in July.

"We start getting the successions of hot, dry days and then we start getting lightning in July and we start getting fire ignitions and we get more ignitions than firefighters can cope with, that's when we start getting large, costly fires," he said.

That combination of factors "means we're going to have a busier than typical fire season for much of the Pacific Northwest."

Fire restrictions likely

Saltenberger said he likes to ride a mountain bike, go on hikes and spend weekends in the woods. "But I'm astonished at the number of improperly extinguished camp fires that I find at camp sites."

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center is projecting areas east of the Cascades will have an elevated fire danger fires. They're also anticipating the threat of large fires in Southwest Oregon in late June and early July.

The threats will continue to rise into September. The Eagle Creek Fire began September 2, 2017.

"At this point for the west side, I don't have it in high risk for large costly fires yet," Saltenberger said. "I reserve the right to update that as we go into fire season 2018 and we see just how dry it gets."


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