2019 Winter Forecast: Longer fire seasons expected to be new norm

Fire season 2019 was mild in Oregon, but what will that mean for future seasons?

Posted: Nov 8, 2019 2:49 PM
Updated: Nov 8, 2019 3:05 PM

EUGENE, Ore. -- Fire season 2019 was a busy one for firefighters.

Total fires in Oregon are up 5% above the 10-year norm, but firefighters have been able to keep the acreage down to 58% below the 10-year norm. Overall, 923 wildfires were reported across Oregon, burning approximately 16,800 acres. That is about 450% less than burned the year before.

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A wet September ended the fire season the earliest in nearly four decades in Lane County. During that time, Eugene saw nearly 5.25 inches of rain. Even with a relatively quiet fire season, future fire seasons aren't expected to be as mild.

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"Part of it was response time and adapting to the new fire season we have been experiencing over the last several years," said Blake Ellis, fire operations manager with the Oregon Department of Forestry.

As climate change brings more extreme weather across the globe, here in the Pacific Northwest, the 2018 National Climate Assessment predicts hotter summers and potentially 30% drier summers by the end of the century. This will lead to longer, more intense fire seasons.

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"All of our model projections are for longer fire seasons, which we have already seen in the Pacific Northwest,” said Dr. John Bailey, professor of silviculture and fire management at Oregon State University. “They are just going to get longer.”

Despite seeing extreme fire seasons the past few years, 2019 was a milder season, including only two Oregon Department of Forestry team deployments. Those included the Milepost 97 Fire in southern Douglas County and the Ward Fire in Klamath County. Despite a milder season, fuel still builds up for future seasons.

"If you have less fire activity, then certainly that accumulation stays in place for the following year, or two, or three, or five year later for it to actually burn," said Dr. Bailey.

Reducing these fuels will be key to lowering the intensity of wildfires in future seasons.

"Timber stands that don't necessarily have clearance from the ground to crowns, allowing for ladder fuels to bring the fire up, that increases the severity and the intensity of fires and makes them more destructive," Ellis said.

ODF is taking action to reduce these fuels through prescribed fires, logging and fuel treatments.

"Working with our federal partners to go through acre by acre and really minimizing those fuels, which means thinning tree stands that we know will be more fire resistant, more fire resilient, and then take those small diameter trees that are going to go anywhere on the market but are a hazard on the forest floor,” said ODF spokesperson Bobbi Doan. "It is not going to be a quick turnaround, there is no trigger that makes it all better," Doan added.

These programs can be the difference in saving your community.

"We know that it works. We have plenty of examples of where we have fuels reduction treatments through prescribed fire, and when the wildfire came through we were able to take a stand," said Christina Clemons, smoke management field coordinator with ODF.

While ODF and their local and federal partners are taking steps to better protect communities, it is important to do your part and fire wise your property. It could ultimately be the difference in saving your home.

"It's not just something that happens in Southern Oregon,” said Doan. “It's not something that just happens out in the woods. Wildfire impacts all Oregonians, and so it's up to all Oregonians to really raise that awareness and work together for a solution moving forward."

With a winter forecast of ENSO Neutral, it is a bit of toss up if we'll see the amount of winter and spring rains that will be critical for how dry we will be heading into next summer. If we do end up drier, another year of above-normal fire potential is likely.

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