Experts say Oregon is drier now than it was this time in 2020

Wildfires

Oregon State University held a forum Monday to discuss wildfires and drought

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Experts at Oregon State University say fire seasons are getting longer throughout the Western United States. 

During a forum focusing on wildfire and drought Monday, OSU experts said while Oregon isn’t yet at the point where fire season lasts year-round, like it does in parts of California, trends of higher temperatures and severe drought are extending the season.

“We want and need more fire to restore forest resiliency, but extremely explosive fire behavior that’s associated with higher temps and longer fire seasons is not what we want,” said James Johnston, who studies historical and contemporary patterns of wildfire in the Pacific Northwest at OSU. 

The forum discussed the fires burning now in Wasco County and near Klamath Falls. Meg Krawchuck, associate professor at OSU’s College of Forestry, said those fires are burning through conditions that are characteristic of what Oregon usually sees in July, not June.  

Oregon already saw some of the earliest fires of 2021 in April. 

“We’re starting hot, we’re starting dry for our fires and we’ll have to wait and see where that goes,” Krawchuck said. 

Larry O’Neil, the Oregon State Climatologist with the Oregon State Climate Service, said the fires burning now are burning in some of the driest parts of the state. He said the state is drier now than it was at this time in 2020 and there’s not much chance of a significant precipitation event that will change that. 

On top of that, the state’s good winter snowpack has almost completely melted. 

Experts in the forum agreed the conditions are ripe for fires to start and stressed that the public needs to do all it can to prevent them. 

“So, while we can’t do a whole lot about the drought conditions we’re facing right now, we can do a whole lot about the ignition sources… in terms of managing people and managing that potential for wildfire as people are out there recreating,” said Lisa Ellsworth, associate professor in the College of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences. 

People on the forum also stressed that communities can act now to help protect their homes. They can create defensible space around structures and perform fuels mitigation. They recommended people who live in areas at risk of wildfires educate themselves through the Firewise USA program on ways to reduce risk to their homes. 

“I think it’s human nature that we want someone else to fix it,” said David Blunck, associate professor in the College of Engineering, “but really, my home is my responsibility and a lot of the responsibility comes from educating ourselves.” 

Blunck said he lives near a forest and has taken steps to protect his own home. 

KOIN 6 News asked the forum if 2021 will be a repeat of 2020, in terms of catastrophic wildfires. 

Krawchuck said it’s difficult to compare the fires the state is seeing east of the Cascades now to those west of the Cascades in September 2020. She said the Labor Day windstorm contributed greatly to 2020’s fires. 

O’Neil, who’s been studying the wind storm, said yes, it was a wild card in 2020, but leading up to Labor Day, Oregon had experienced a very dry summer, just like 2021 is shaping up to be. 

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