Oregon’s Devastating Wildfires: Recent Droughts Make Fire Risk Higher

More than 25,000 acres of wilderness are burning six miles southwest of Sisters—almost 40 square miles. The Pole Creek Fire, burning since Sept. 9, is the latest in a series of fires to sweep Oregon during a longer-than-usual fire season. Although the cause of the Pole Creek Fire is currently under investigation, it’s less of a mystery why fires are such a hazard this year. Record heat—Portland recorded its highest temperature ever at 102 degrees in August—and a drought throughout much of the state have combined to create ideal conditions for wildfires. This weekend, the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning as thunderstorms with very little rain, winds up to 45 miles per hour, and plenty of lightening present a threat of further fires in central and eastern Oregon.

“Frequent lightening and critically dry fuels may result in numerous fire starts,” warned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) earlier this week. “A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and warm temperatures will create explosive fire growth potential.”

Historically one of the worst fires, the Long Draw fire burned half a million acres in Oregon earlier last year. As of Sept. 11, the National Interagency Fire Center reported 1.2 million acres burned so far in the state—that’s compared to last year’s figure of only 285,000 acres.

And Oregon is by no means the state hit the worst by this summer’s drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 60 percent of the contiguous U.S. experienced moderate to exceptional drought at the end of August. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported more than half of the nation’s corn crop in poor to very poor condition at the end of August. In some states, almost all of the pasture and rangeland was devastated; in Missouri, 99 percent was rated poor or very poor. NOAA is calling it the widest drought since 1956.

Some scientists blame climate change caused by global warming. According to a 2012 study by James Hansen, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy, the chances of unusually warm or cool seasons are increasing due to global warming. About 10 percent of the Earth’s land mass, they estimate, is facing extreme hot temperatures.

Oregon’s coming rainy season should soon put an end to this year’s fire season, but it looks like the issue is only going to get hotter in coming years. This year’s longer-than-usual fire season might well become the new norm.


Historical Year-End Fire Stats in Oregon

2012: 770 fires over 1,282,995 acres

2011: 1,151 fires over 285,712 acres

2010: 1,299 fires over 69,623 acres

2009: 1,488 fires over 100,668 acres

2008: 1,766 fires over 136,572 acres

Information from the National Interagency Fire Center


By Jen Matteis