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Oregon's large fires of recent years are recursors, university experts say

by Carly Keenan, KTVZ-TV (Bend, Ore.) |

There have been 1,780 wildfires that have burned 802,415 acres in Oregon this year, as of Sept. 17. Several drought and fire experts from Oregon State University held an online forum for reporters Tuesday to discuss this summer's fires, and say they're not surprised by the severe wildfires Oregon has seen of late.

Larry O'Neill, a wildfire expert at OSU, says we can expect to see similar fire behavior next year.

"What we saw this summer is going to be a precursor to what we can expect in the future," he said.

Experts say the type of fires that burned this year – ones that take weeks to contain and can devastate forests and communities – will become more common.

OSU faculty member James Johnston. who studies historical and contemporary patterns of wildfire in the Pacific Northwest, says the Bootleg fire is an example of this.

"There will absolutely, positively be more Bootleg fires in our future," he said.

O'Neill says extreme drought and heat are part of the reason our fires were so bad this year – and we can expect to see more of those conditions as well.

"The extreme events will become even more extreme," he said.

Johnston says the fires we saw this summer showed there needs to be more work done to manage fuels, like prescribed burns.

"The only way to fight fire is with fire," Johnston says. "We don't have a choice about whether we're going to have fire on the landscape – that's been the lesson of the 2021 and 2020 fire seasons. We only have a choice about when and where."

Erica Fischer, an assistant professor who studies fire in the wildland-urban interface, says we should treat fire like we do earthquakes or tsunamis. By being prepared for whatever will happen and understand our role in fire prevention.

"We can't put our blinders up and put it purely in the land management arena," she said. "Our communities are going to continue to get damaged if we continue to look at it that way."

According to the Oregon Wildfire Response & Recovery, there are seven large fires still burning in Oregon.