With the return of unseasonably warm temperatures, widespread drought, wildfires and burn bans, it’s been difficult for some Oregonians not to recall last September, when wildland blazes burned over 1 million acres, killed nine people and displaced nearly 40,000 others.
But while climate change is making wildfires more common, experts say, it takes an unlikely combination of weather conditions to create a fire season as deadly and costly as the Northwest experienced in 2020.
And even though Oregonians should be taking steps to be prepared for wildfires, they shouldn’t take this spring’s unusually warm weather as a harbinger of an especially harrowing fire season — or a sign that sunny, warm days are here to stay.
“I warn folks not to get too worried about what the following fire season will be like simply based upon a warm, dry spell during the spring,” said John Saltenberger, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center’s fire weather program manager.
“It’s almost always the case that once we wind up with a warm and dry spell for a week or 10 days in the spring, usually later on in the spring you’re going to pay for it somewhere else with a corresponding period of cool and wet weather.”
The fire season has already started to flicker in Oregon, with flames springing up in Douglas, Clackamas and Klamath counties, and a brush fire in Bend prompting the evacuation of nearly 200 homes last month. Gov. Kate Brown on March 31 issued a drought declaration for Klamath County — her first such declaration of the year — and strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity led to a burn ban starting April 13 in Multnomah County.
But Saltenberger, a meteorologist of nearly 40 years, said unseasonably high temperatures and occasional fires don’t necessarily foretell a particularly bad wildfire season. Steadily rising temperatures, less precipitation and stronger winds across the Northwest are cause for concern, however.
“I detect an ominous trend in the number and intensity of the strong easterly wind events that seem to be moving northwards from California into Oregon and Washington and hitting us at times when fire danger is high,” said Saltenberger, who reviews fluctuations in fire danger and weather and anticipates possible spates of large and costly wildfires.
Strong easterly winds are common during winter. But when the winds arrive earlier in the season, as they did in 2020, they can combine with dry and hot weather to create prime conditions for devastating wildfires, Saltenberger said.
Such dangerous conditions are being exacerbated by a steady decrease in precipitation falling on the western U.S. during the summer months, when chances of wildfires are at their highest.
“In the past, when we had a greater incidence of rainy days during fire season, that was good news for us in that it cooled the weather off, we got some moisture and it reset fire danger back downwards,” Saltenberger said. “We’re not getting those reset days nearly as frequently as we did in past decades, which means that our fire danger starts ramping up and there’s really nothing to hold it back.”
Saltenberger said Oregonians should be aware of best practices for preventing wildfires and keeping them from getting worse, including fireproofing homes and property and cleaning up dry brush and debris.
And he said people should not expect this spring’s unseasonably warm weather to stick around until summer.
“I always warn people to be skeptical about these early teasing warm spells,” Saltenberger said. “I mean, How many times have we had weather looking great in May, and then by Rose Festival just buckets of rain are coming down on us?”