Intense Wildfires Likely Result of Climate Change

  The conditions leading to intense smoke and wildfire may be a harbinger of things to come, according to researchers with the National Weather Service, Oregon State University, and the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.   

There is a weather pattern known as the “the Chetco Effect” or “the Brooking Effect” in which cool air drops into and passes through Chetco Canyon and then warms up. This causes the hot winds to speed up as they move towards the coast. During Labor Day weekend, a similar phenomenon happened affecting most of southwest and northwest Oregon.   

“When you get the wind combined with very low humidity, that is a bad combination,” Jay Stockton of the National Weather Service in Medford told OPB. Stockton said this is the first time he has seen this combination of weather conditions during his 22 years as a weather service forecaster in Medford. 

 As a result, Stockton’s office issued a series of Red Flag Warnings about the weekend’s weather conditions. That Monday and Tuesday, dozens of fires started and the warm, and dry winds drove the flames quickly across the landscape.  

“It’s like someone poured gasoline on the forest,” Oregon State climatologist Larry O’Neill told OPB regarding the Labor Day weekend weather conditions and the resulting fires.  

OSU College of Forestry professor Meg Krawchuk told the New York Times that the dry weather conditions and hot eastern wind resulted in “teeing up the landscape” for a wildfire. She also indicated this is likely the result of climate change.  

Much of the state was already experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions before the fires began, according to the United States Drought Monitor. The National Integrated Drought Information System data shows that such droughts have become a regular occurrence in Oregon starting in the year 2000, with the exception of 2006.  

“Drought certainly contributed to the fires that we’re seeing now,” said Erica Fleishman, director of OSU’s Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.  

OPB reported that these fires may be the most intense recorded so far in Oregon’s history. Local climate scientists such as researchers at the OCCRI indicate that forest fires intensify due to climate change. OBB explained that burning fossil fuels sends more gasses, including carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. The trapped gasses accumulate resulting in rising global temperatures. Droughts, hot winds, and intensified wildfires are considered consequences of climate change.  

Kathie Drello, Associate Director of OCCRI, summed it up in an editorial published in Nature: “Scientists must walk a careful line when attributing specific events to climate change. Wildfires are part of a healthy ecosystem and a fact of life in the western United States.”   

Drello’s editorial continued, “But climate change increases the threat: fires that do start are larger and last longer. Warmer summer temperatures mean more evaporation. Overall, that means drier forests during the fire season.”  

“It fits into a many-year western United States pattern of more fires. More large fires. More destructive fires,” Fleishman told OPB. “And all of that is consistent with what climate scientists and ecologists and others have been projecting for decades.”  

The National Climate Assessment shows that average annual temperatures in the Northwest have risen by more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The report shows winter temperatures are warming faster than summer temperatures, resulting in less snowpack. This leads to drought because the melting snowpack contributes less water flowing from the mountains to the forests and groundwater.  

“I do think that there is a connection with climate change,” Oregon State climatologist Larry O’Neill told OPB. “Climate change will alter circulation patterns globally, so it’s not unreasonable to expect.”  

By Samantha Sied