PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Despite the rain for many in Oregon this spring, Gov. Kate Brown said most counties are still experiencing some kind of drought, increasing the risk of wildfires this summer.
Brown was joined during Monday’s press conference on the upcoming wildfire season by officials from the Oregon Department of Forestry, Office of the State Fire Marshal, Oregon Military Department, Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Environmental Quality.
“We are seeing conditions in place that indicate another challenging fire season ahead,” Brown said.
However, Brown also said that recent investments have helped the state increase the number of seasonal firefighters in the ranks and add more aviation assets.
On Friday, Brown issued more emergency declarations for four more Oregon counties suffering from intense drought conditions, bringing the total number to 15. It is the highest and earliest number of emergency drought declarations issued by Brown during her time as governor, she said on Monday.
The most recent drought monitor map for Oregon shows the ongoing drought is worse than this time last year. Although there are eight counties with no drought conditions as of May 2022, eight counties are currently experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions and 15 experiencing “extreme” drought, with some overlap between the counties experiencing “exceptional” and “extreme” conditions.
State climatologist Larry O’Neill told KOIN 6 News needed a very strong winter from start to finish, when it was off and on at best, with a dry start and a very dry middle in February, so while a wet spring has helped stop some of the figurative bleeding, it isn’t reversing the dry conditions that have stuck around.
“Drought is often called a slow-moving natural disaster and the reason it’s like that is it takes a lot of time for water to buildup in the landscape,” O’Neill said. “The prevention piece is critically important. Any fire we can keep off the landscape that is human-caused is going to be absolutely critical for the long-term health and wellness, both economically and physically, for Oregonians.”
Meanwhile, state officials are warning Oregonians to stay prepared and to be “two week ready” this wildfire season, including signing up for local alerts, setting up a plan with family members well ahead of a fire, and listening to authorities when they ask for people to evacuate an area.
“In terms of prevention, while some of our worst fires have been caused by natural disasters, most fires are human caused,” Brown said on Monday. “So, please be smart and be careful when you’re enjoying our outdoors. You can help prevent tragic loss.”
Meanwhile, new data research released on Monday found the number of properties at risk for wildfires in Oregon will increase to 61% within the next 30 years.
Oregon lawmakers bolstered the state’s wildfire mitigation and firefighting capacity with $200 million invested last year in Senate Bill 762. In part, it extends the season for when seasonal firefighters can be hired, which ODF Fire Chief Mike Shaw says has made it easier to fill those positions.
However, the potential for wildfires across the western United States is above average for many states, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. When large, fast-moving fires, sometimes called Megafires, break out, no state can have the resources on its own to fight them. Despite Oregon’s added investment, Shaw worries about the fire season across the West.
“(I’m) very concerned about when the national firefighting effort gets stretched. That has far-ranging impacts to Oregonians,” Shaw said.
Brendan Thompson contributed to this reporting.