PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon Department of Forestry declared an end to the 2023 wildfire season on Oct. 18, marking Oregon’s third consecutive year of declining wildfire conditions. Fires burned approximately 190,507 acres around the state in 2023, well shy of the 456,038 acres torched by wildfires in 2022 and a fraction of the 1.14 million acres devastated by wildfires in 2020.
Oregon Department of Forestry spokesperson Jessica Prakke attributed the improved season to an aggressive attack plan carried out by firefighters. Millions of dollars in additional funding provided by the 2021 state legislature also helped to increase firefighter staffing and resources in 2023, she said, allowing firefighters to keep the 2023 wildfire season under control.
Oregon state climatologist Larry O’Neill told KOIN 6 News that fortuitous weather also significantly improved Oregon’s 2023 wildfire season. Oregon’s abundant snowpack, supply of summer showers, drought relief and few lightning-caused fires combined to help firefighters keep the 2023 season under control.
“The weather and hydrological conditions that worked in our favor included a great mountain snowpack going into spring and above average precipitation spread about evenly throughout the summer,” O’Neill said. “While many spring and summer showers had abundant lightning, there were relatively few lightning-caused ignitions.”
Southwest Oregon was the hardest hit region in the state in 2023 with the Flat Fire in Curry County and the Bedrock Fire in Lane County burning more than 65,000 combined acres. However, O’Neill said that the fires were kept under control thanks to a lack of easterly winds and quick work from firefighters.
“The stage was set for a very active fire season,” he said. “We were fortunate to not get any east wind events, and the lack of any was a factor in the relatively low acreage burned. Even with the lack of large fires, the fire season itself was very active, with a significant number of ignitions. A significant factor in keeping the fires relatively small was the quick response of firefighters, enhanced monitoring and quicker detection of wildfire starts, and the substantial increase in resources to aggressively attack any new starts.”
As Oregon enters the 2023-2024 wet season, O’Neill said that, overall, the state is still gradually recovering from the widespread drought seen in 2020. Northwest and northern Oregon are still in a state of moderate to severe drought, and extreme levels of drought persist in southern areas of the Willamette Valley. If Oregon doesn’t receive healthy precipitation this winter, the state may see a more destructive wildfire season in 2024.
“More concerning, many of the reservoirs in the Willamette basin are much lower than normal,” he said. “While it is too early to say, there will be increasing concern if this El Nino ends up warm and dry in the Pacific Northwest.”