Columbia Fire & Rescue Operations Division Chief Eric Smythe says that grass fires and brush fires usually start in May or June, but in the past few years that initial fire date has been steadily moving up the calendar. Last year, the first recorded brush fire in Oregon was on April 1. This year, it was March 17. Smythe thinks Oregon is in for “a long fire season.”
The effects of climate change – lower rates of precipitation, shrinking winter snowpack and increasingly hot and arid summers – serve as both tinder and match for worsening fire seasons in the western U.S.
On Monday March 18, the day after the year’s first recorded brush fire, Columbia Fire & Rescue responded to five more fires, three of them brush fires, within 12 hours. The next day, Tuesday, a 200 acre wildfire broke out along the Linn-Marion County divide in Santiam Park near Lyons, Oregon, causing the evacuation of 42 homes on either side of the county line and drawing in over 100 firefighting personnel.
By Friday evening, the fire was still smoldering but fully contained. No structures were damaged, and local officials reduced the level of the fire warning, allowing evacuated residents to return to their homes.
Smythe and other officials worry if this is a sign of an even more intense fire season than Oregon saw last year. They are hoping for steady levels of precipitation to keep moisture on the fine materials and twigs that can dry out, ignite, and spark much larger fires. However, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, a coordination center for federal and state agencies working on wildland fire management, reported that the Pacific Northwest as a whole received below-average precipitation this past month.