A hot, dry spring and forecasts of a warmer and drier than average summer mean that the Pacific Northwest is primed for another season of unusually large and costly wildfires, according to state and federal forestry officials.
Sen. Ron Wyden met with firefighting officials from a host of state and federal agencies Friday morning at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland to review conditions and get a better sense of their needs.
Wyden left no doubt where he stood: “I believe Oregon and the West are sitting on powder keg of fire risk,” he said, citing wildfire issues cropping up around the state. “Obviously it’s early, but suffice it to say, what we saw last year, where the fires were getting bigger and hotter and more powerful. ... I think we got a sense of what we’re dealing with.”
The 664,824 acres burned last year was above the 10-year average, but nowhere near a record. However, last year’s fire season was notable for the large number of fires that burned west of the Cascades, in “wet side” forests — versus in the hotter and drier national forest to the east. Portland got a big helping of fire season conditions as the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge lit up the night time sky, blanketed the metropolitan area with smoke and rained ashes for part of September.
So far this year, some 141,000 acres in the region have been affected by wildfire, including 130,000 acres in Oregon and 12,000 in Washington. That included 936 reported fires, including 370 in Oregon, 60 percent of which were human caused. Total firefighting costs in the region so far this year total $12.4 million.
To date, the largest fire this season is the Boxcar complex southeast of Maupin, Ore. It started with a lightning strike on June 21 and, pushed by dry and windy conditions, spread to more than 100,000 acres. It was fully contained by the end of June.
John Saltenberger, a meteorologist at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, said the weather outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other forecasters have painted a consistent picture: warmer and drier than average weather for the region in July, August and September.
“We saw that in ‘15. We saw that in ‘17. And it looks like some of those components are coming together for ‘18 as well,” Saltenberger said. “Hence the designation of much of the geographic area as being at unusual risk for large and costly fires.”
Wyden noted that Congress was no longer standing by idly. After a six-year push by Western lawmakers, Congress finally acted this spring to end the U.S. Forest Service’s cycle of fire borrowing, in which the agency would annually divert funds from other programs, including fire prevention, when firefighting costs exceeded its budget.
As part of the omnibus spending package passed in March, Congress created an emergency fund that kicks in when the roughly $1.5 billion budgeted for fighting fires across the country is tapped out. Starting in 2020, the fund would provide up to $2 billion annually for firefighting costs, similar to the way recovery efforts for other natural disasters are paid for.
Congress also appropriated additional money, available this year, to fight the largest conflagrations, and undertook a set of management reforms designed to expedite restoration and treatment work to make federal forests more fire resilient.
The emphasis of most of those actions are fire prevention, and it could take years for the full impact of those policy changes to have a meaningful impact. In the meantime, Wyden said he was continuing to work on three things that could be helpful: ensuring the Forest Service is mustering an adequate fleet of air tankers so it has surge capacity when communities are in immediate danger; training more National Guard troops to provide backup firefighting; and asking the Forest Service to outline its plan for dealing with high risk areas that will benefit most from treatments like hazardous fuels reduction.
Doug Grafe, the Forestry Department’s chief of fire protection, said two thirds of fire starts are caused by humans and preventable. He urged people to be aware of fire conditions and fires restrictions when they go out into the woods and tailor their activities accordingly.