Wildfires to Become Oregonian Norm, Say OSU Researchers

The past two summers, Oregon has felt the impact of massive and widespread wildfires. Across the state, smoke has clouded the skies on many days — and that may become normal. 

Researchers at Oregon State University with expertise in drought and fire held an online forum at OSU on Tuesday to talk about wildfires in the state. The general consensus? Fires like the Bootleg are likely to become a yearly occurrence in Oregon. 

OSU wildfire expert Larry O’Neill said, “Basically, what we saw this summer is going to be a precursor to what we can expect in the future.” And he’s not talking about small wildfires that are extinguished in a matter of hours or days. He’s talking about the fires that rage and spread for weeks, or even months, before being contained. 

Erica Fischer, an assistant professor at OSU who focuses on infrastructure and interconnections in relation to wildfires, was confident that this problem wouldn’t go away. Rather, it’s going to become something we just need to plan around. 

Fischer said, “Look back to the early ’90s when we discovered the Cascadia Subduction Zone, that’s what it is going to look like… We’re going to have to map out the high-risk areas.” 

Fischer later continued, emphasizing the importance of planning, rather than reactionary measures, “We can’t put our blinders up and put it purely in the land management arena. Our communities are going to continue to get damaged if we continue to look at it that way.”  

Fischer also encouraged Oregonians to not think of wildfires as a season, but as fire decades.” In addition, it’s vital that you think of wildfires like tsunamis or earthquakes — they’re something the state and communities prepare for, rather than waiting to see. 

And it’s not just the fires that will continue, according to O’Neill. “The extreme events will get more extreme,” he said, in reference to drought and extreme heat.  

OSU research associate Chris Dunn spoke on the new challenges that wildfires have presented, saying, “That really shows us that we are still challenged by fire migrating north in the Cascade crest to a much greater extent than we’ve experienced in, say, the last hundred years.”  

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center shows that as of today there are still eleven active, uncontained wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. Seven are in Oregon, and the remaining four are in Washington. 

By Ethan Hauck