Weather promising for fire season’s end; winds could change that

Wildfires

Cooler temperatures have kept fires at bay, but September could bring a change in winds

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Researchers at Oregon State University held a virtual forum Wednesday to discuss the drought in the western United States. At the forum, they shared some hopeful information about the tail end of fire season. 

“We’re probably out of the worst of fire weather in terms of high temperatures and low relative humidity,” said James Johnston, research associate at OSU’s College of Forestry. 

Johnston said the nights have been cooler and fires in Oregon have been more easily managed in the last couple weeks. 

Ariel Cowan, a regional fire specialist with OSU, also said current forecasts show there’s a chance of La Niña emerging in the Northwest in the next couple of months. The National Weather Service says there’s about a 70% chance La Niña will last through the 2021-2022 winter. 

For the Pacific Northwest, La Niña typically brings rain and snow and could help fire season end sooner. 

While this is all great news, the experts on OSU’s forum were leery about being overly optimistic. 

Lisa Ellsworth, an assistant professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, said in the last several years, Oregon has been experiencing shifts in wind direction in late-August and early-September that have been contributing to wildfires. Two examples of this are the Eagle Creek Fire that occurred in the Columbia River Gorge in 2017 and the Labor Day wind storm fires from 2020. 

“What we’ll want to be watching for in the coming weeks is, you know, what type of wind patterns that we’re looking at,” Ellsworth said. “Conditions have been more conducive to getting out in front of the fires that we have already, but we can’t predict what the ignition sources are going to look like.” 

Experts said the Labor Day fires in 2020 resulted from the perfect combination of extreme drought, strong winds, and their ignitions. 

They said fires can get out of hand in September because fire crews are exhausted and stretched thin. 

Participants in the forum said that while now might not be the ideal time for people to create defensible space around their homes, they hope more people will do so as the weather starts to cool down; especially people who live in wildland-urban interface areas. 

They also stressed the importance of signing up for emergency alerts. Oregonians can do so by texting their zip code to 888777. 

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