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Oregon wildfire danger still above normal, but wet May, June helped

by Zach Urness, Salem (Ore.) Statesman-Journal |

Oregon was in trouble at the end of April.

The state was already in drought, with its snowpack melting and reservoirs way below normal, with the hottest and driest months still to come.

A very bad wildfire season appeared likely, heaping another dose of trouble on a state hit by COVID-19 and its economic fallout.

But then May arrived and brought more rain than normal — and a lot more in some cases — to salve the cracked landscape and delay the worst of the fire season.

“What we saw in May, and what we’re expecting in early June, should delay early wildfire starts,” said Nick Yonker, who helps forecast wildfire danger for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “Long-term, we’re still very dry in many parts of the state. We’re still expecting an above-normal year in terms of wildfire danger and acres burned. But the big question is: ‘when do we hit that bone-dry period?’ That will tell us a lot.”

The art of predicting a wildfire season is imperfect at best. Oregon looked to be facing a challenging wildfire season the summer of 2019 and ended up seeing the fewest acres burned since 2004.

The opposite was true in 2017, which came in with projections for a peaceful few months and ended up bringing megafires that raged in every pocket of Western Oregon, from the Columbia Gorge to extreme southwest Oregon.

“You can’t predict a lot of things, including the big one — lightning,” Yonker said. “You can’t know if we’ll get wet lightning, which happened a lot last year, or dry lightning, which leads to a lot worse fires. But, we can look at the other factors and make forecasts working with that we have.”

>> Moderate drought continues

The factors forecasters do have are not encouraging.

Even with the recent rain and cool weather, 81 percent of the state is experiencing a moderate drought. Thirty-seven percent of the state — largely in Western Oregon valleys and Central Oregon — has already reached severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Only northeast Oregon, which has seen flooding, has pockets that are drought-free.

In addition, while Oregon’s snowpack did reach a normal level at one point late in the winter, it melted early, which allows the fuels to dry out early and will likely make them more receptive to fire starts — from lightning or careless campfires — once the dry season arrives in earnest.

The good news is that June is expected to begin wet and cool, and long-term forecasts favor a wetter-than-average month with average temperatures.

But, wildfire experts still expect above-normal danger to spread across the state by July.

“Large fire potential is expected to rise above normal in June in southwestern Oregon and then in much of the rest of Oregon and eastern Washington by July and August,” according to the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook produced June 1.