Perfect Storm of Factors Leads to Unparalleled Fire Season

Fires creating mayhem all across the state this week became so powerful that Gov. Kate Brown called them unprecedented. More than three dozen blazes are burning on nearly 900,000 acres in Oregon – twice the yearly average of the past decade.  

These horrifying fires were bolstered by a rare set of factors that climate change scientists warn could potentially become a standard occurrence if changes are not made. These factors included a powerful wind event, a warming climate leaving fuels exceptionally dry and forest management practices that generate excessive amounts of fuel.   

While fires are often thought of as a natural disaster, humans have created perfect conditions to nurture these events.   

Erica Fleishman, director of Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, told OregonLive, “Climate change is making fire circumstances like we’re seeing now more common. All the fire behavior we’re seeing is what has been projected by people who study climate change and its effects.”   

Scientists maintain that greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere, preventing heat from escaping, and thus warming the climate. Droughts have become prevalent and extreme, and Oregon has warmed by about 2 degrees over a century. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 60% of the state is considered to be suffering “severe” drought  

Causes of drought can be linked to water patterns, says OregonLive. Water, which would normally accumulate as snowpack, isn’t doing so. Instead, it falls as rain, meaning it evaporates quickly or runs into rivers and oceans. Under ideal conditions, water would become a reservoir as snowpack, released throughout the summer, keeping forests and surrounding land from drying out and becoming vulnerable to fire.   

University of California, Merced professor John Abatzoglou studies the links between wildfires and climate change. He told OregonLive “Western Oregon entered the fire season with long-term drought after a poor showing of precipitation during winter/spring … the last 60-80 days have been hot and dry, allowing fuels to dry out substantially and become receptive to igniting and carrying fire.”  

John Bailey, a professor of forestry at Oregon State, also spoke to OregonLive, telling them that while fires are a natural part of the forest life cycle, their role changed in the beginning of the 20th century when the federal government created what is now known as the “10 a.m. rule.” This rule states that a fire should be contained by 10 a.m. the day after the initial report, inadvertently resulting in the prevention of naturally occurring forest fires that could remove dry fuels currently lying in wait for a stray spark to ignite them.   

The recent wind events literally fanned the flames this week, sending dry accumulated fuels up like a match. Hot, dry air blew from the northeast, over the cascades, and while these winds are not rare, they are usually seen in the middle of winter, not during the height of fire season.   

Briana Phillips, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service told OregonLive “As the air moves down the mountainside it gets compressed and heats up. We were already in critical fire conditions. You couple that with strong winds, and we have this event.”  

A report on NASAs website explained the effect this windstorm had on the Beachie Creek Fire. According to NASA, on the morning of Sept. 7, the Beachie Creek Fire was only burning on 469 acres. Overnight, the fire grew at the hands of the wind and undisturbed fuels to over 131,000 acres  

NASA’s Aqua Satellite captured this image during the historical event. NASA’s satellite instruments often detect new wildfires in remote areas first. The locations of new fires are sent within hours directly to land managers worldwide, providing information for management, as well as mapping the extent of changes to ecosystems using burn scars.  

The winds pushed the smoke from the fires out more than 600 miles over the Pacific Ocean. NASA wrote “It is striking how thick and concentrated the smoke is in this image, and many cities and towns up and down the entire West Coast are reporting almost ‘nightlike’ conditions and red-orange skies created by particles in the air blocking out all other colors.”   

According to OregonLive, 37 fires were burning around the state by Friday morning, consuming homes, businesses and killing at least four people while displacing thousands more. Small amounts of short-term relief were achieved by slowing winds, as well as a directional shift. Rain is also expected early next week.   

But long-term deliverance may be harder to attain, Bailey told OregonLive. “These kinds of summers are going to become more prevalent. All of the climate models say that it’s only going to get worse.”   

Without changes to current climate legislation, forest management practices and greenhouse gas emissions, we’re looking down a potentially catastrophic and smoke-filled road.   

Kyra Blank