PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Drought conditions worsened in Oregon and Washington this week as the West enters the 2023 wildfire season.

After escaping drought level in mid-March, parts of Multnomah County and other areas of Northwest Oregon and Western Washington have returned to “abnormally dry” conditions — the mildest stage of drought recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The worsening drought was brought on by the region’s historically hot and dry May weather. KOIN 6 Meteorologist Josh Cozart reports that last month was the warmest May in Portland’s recorded history. Portland also ended the month with 16 consecutive days without rain, the longest stretch of rainless weather Portland has seen in May.

Oregon drought conditions on May 23 (left) and May 30 (right). (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Oregon State University climatologist Larry O’Neill told KOIN 6 News that research shows that wildfire risk is most associated with temperature and precipitation levels during May and June.

After a very warm and dry May, Oregon’s seasonal outlook suggests similar or more intense conditions in June.

“The abnormally warm and dry weather experienced during May and the outlook for continued warm dry weather suggest that an active wildfire season is becoming more likely in Western Oregon for elevations below 4,000 feet beginning in early July,” O’Neill said. “Besides the weather, there will be more abundant dry grasses and underbrush than usual due to the wetter weather we experienced during the winter months.”

State officials say that the region’s abundant spring rainfall and healthy snowpack will likely delay this year’s wildfire season. Oregon’s ample snowpack has helped reservoirs around the state bounce back from multiple years of intense drought. But despite the state’s growing water supply, much of central and Eastern Oregon remain in stages of moderate to severe drought.

There are currently two notable wildfires burning in Oregon. As of June 1. The Dillon Creek Fire, a low-intensity lightning fire started in Northeast Klamath County on May 19, is currently 3,119 acres in size and 85% contained. The 7K wildfire burning in Lane County’s Coast Range is 321 acres in size and 40% contained.

The 7K Fire burning in Lane County. (Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Forestry.)

O’Neill said that it’s too early in the season to predict how active Oregon’s 2023 wildfire season will be. However, he said that conditions associated with active wildfire seasons are developing. 

“For elevations above 4,000 feet, the strong snowpack and later than normal [snowmelt] will more than likely limit the potential wildfire risk until at least August,” he said. “Central and Eastern Oregon have experienced a warmer than normal May but have also experienced above to well-above normal precipitation. Fortunately, this will also limit concerns about wildfire risk until later in July for most locations.”