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Northwest fires burned far fewer acres this year, but smoke still a problem

by Michael Kohn, Bend (Ore.) Bulletin |

The amount of forestland burned by wildfire in the Pacific Northwest fell by two-thirds this year compared to a year ago, due in part to wet spring weather.

More than 549,000 acres burned in Oregon and Washington this year compared to the more than 1.5 million acres burned a year ago, according to data from the Deschutes National Forest.

The steep decline comes after years of increasing wildfire activity in the West that has destroyed towns and burned millions of acres of forest in California, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado and other states.

Two years ago, wildfires in Oregon burned 1 million acres, destroyed more than 3,000 buildings, and killed 10 people.

Last year, the massive Bootleg Fire burned 413,765 acres, the third-largest fire in state history.

This year’s largest fire in Oregon was the Double Creek Fire in Wallowa County. Triggered by a lightning strike, the fire eventually burned through 161,591 acres. The state’s second-largest fire was the 127,311-acre Cedar Creek Fire, which burned in the Willamette and Deschutes national forests.

>> Smoke was a problem

While the Cedar Creek Fire did not destroy any structures, it created a toxic pall of smoke that hung over the city of Oakridge for most of September and October.

In Oakridge, wildfire smoke was the main reason why the city experienced 37 days of air pollution that was unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse. That was by far the worst in the state, followed by Eugene which experienced eight days of air that was unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse.

Two firefighters died in Oregon this year from falling trees: one in the Big Swamp Fire in Douglas County and the other in the Rum Creek Fire in Josephine County.

The quieter fire season across the Western U.S. allowed Oregon to keep most fire crews and resources in the region, which helped teams put out most fires before they had a chance to reach out-of-control levels.

At the start of the fire season, it was announced that Central Oregon would receive $41.3 million in federal funding over the next three years to increase forest management activities.

Larry O’Neill, an associate professor at the Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, said the lower number of fires and burned acres can be attributed to Oregon’s wetter-than-normal spring, when the state received late-season rain and snow.

“The wet spring I think really helped (delay) fire season, especially in the Cascades,” said O’Neill. “While it didn’t help as much with the drought in a lot of places, it really (delayed) fire season by a few weeks in the higher elevations.”