Warmer, dryer trends point to fire risks

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June 15 was final day for outdoor burning for Lane County

June 16, 2021 — Fire season has arrived and with drought conditions in several areas of the state, fire authorities are worried this summer may see more intense burns.

The season came as early as May 15 this year for some areas of Southern and Central Oregon, such as Klamath, Jackson, Josephine and Lake counties. It was also declared in Prineville and as far north as The Dalles, making it the earliest start in 40 years.

The Oregon Department of Forestry declared the start of the fire seasons due to fuel conditions, lack of spring rains, extreme drought and continuous fire activity.

On June 15, the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency (LRAPA) issued a burn ban in Lane County.

Though the date is typical for the area and there has been a recent spate of rain, trends show that the region has been getting both warmer and drier over the years, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data.

Scott Borgioli, a meteorologist based in Cottage Grove, attested that the nation’s continental West is overall getting warmer, experiencing a rise in the snowline and seeing earlier spring snow melts.

Borgioli recently conducted a special study to answer local agricultural concerns.

“I’ve been fielding a lot of questions from the local community,” he said. “People are asking ‘Are we drying up?’ and, ‘Is Oregon burning up?’ This prompted me to do a study, even though I’ve already been seeing these trends in my 20-plus years as a meteorologist.”

Much of the study is based on data from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, which shows a marked rise in average summer high temperatures between 1991 and 2020. In the long term, annual average temperature trends in the region have also seen a gradual increase between 1895 and 2020.

Borgioli also pointed to an increase in dryness.

Though drought recordings in Oregon dating back to 1895 show that swings between dry and wet periods are frequent, March 1 through May 31 this year marked the driest meteorological spring on record.

Over the past 45 years, said Borgioli, many areas have had increases in the average time without precipitation events, which means not only drier summers, but during the other seasons as well. Precipitation events themselves are also becoming more varied.

The global temperature for May 2021 tied with 2018 as the sixth highest for the month of May in the 142-year NOAA record, which dates back to 1880.

Every 10 years, NOAA’s "30-year Climate Normals" are updated. The most recent update occurred on May 4, 2021, to cover the period of 1991 through 2020. The trends show warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns.

Eugene, for example, saw 5.27 inches less rainfall in the new climate normal period.

The city’s period of 1981-2010 saw 46.10 inches of rainfall, but for the updated period of 1991-2020, the new Normal Annual Precipitation was at 40.83 inches.

Nationally, the Southwest is trending toward longer and more frequent droughts and the trend has crept up into parts of Oregon as well.

Borgioli pointed to more episodes of strong, persistent, high pressure in the Pacific Ocean which “block” storms as part of the reason for some loss of annual precipitation.

“Increased variability and overall lower precipitation has strong influence on agriculture, vegetation and wildfires,” said Borgioli. “Increased time between precipitation events has a large impact on wildfires and also affects soil, livestock, vegetation and wildlife.”

Borgioli pointed out that the changes in climate are due to both natural and human influences.

“We are seeing changes in the climate, some of which appear to be influenced by man – greenhouse gases trapping heat and causing a slightly warmer environment,” he said. “Basically, greenhouse gases act to prevent more radiation from leaving Earth at night. This means the incoming solar radiation (sunshine) has less net escape during the night due to these gases acting like a ‘blanket.’ The end result is more overall heat.”

Natural phenomena have had an effect this year as well. The relatively weak turnout this last season of the climate pattern La Nina, for example, impacted the lack of precipitation this year while a stronger presence may have meant a wetter period.

Ultimately, the overall trends point to higher fire risks.

“Summers are getting warmer and thus this affects wildfire behavior,” said Borgioli.

Fire management

Tuesday, June 15, was the final day for outdoor burning for most Lane County residents until October.

During the fire season, yard debris may not be burned, however LRAPA noted that removing overgrown vegetation is important work to defend against wildfires.

Lane Forest Products, Rexius, or Lane County’s transfer stations and dumpsites are resources available to the community to dispose of debris. Composting and chipping are also encouraged.

Residents who burn during the closed season are subject to violations ranging from $50 to $2,500 or more.

The Lane County Fire Defense Board will decide to open the fall burning season on Oct. 1 or delay its opening due to high fire risk.

The Special Districts Association of Oregon’s member fire districts have asked for public and fire district assistance to reduce fire spread in the event of a wildfire. 

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers some tips on mitigating the risks:

  • Before a wildfire threatens an area, much can be done to minimize risk.
  • Creating “defensible space” is a critical first step in and around homes and businesses.
  • Clearing leaves and other debris from gutters, eaves, porches, and decks prevents embers from igniting buildings and removing dead vegetation, firewood piles and other items from under a deck or porch and within 10 feet of the building can give a location a safety buffer.
  • Screen or box in areas below patios and decks with 1/8-inch wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
  • Remove flammable materials (firewood stacks, propane tanks, etc.) within 30 feet of your foundation and outbuildings, including garages and sheds. If it can catch fire, don't let it touch your buildings, deck, or porch.
  • Wildfire can spread to treetops. Prune trees so the lowest branches are 6 to 10 feet from the ground.
  • Keep your lawn hydrated and maintained. If it is brown, cut it down to reduce fire intensity. Dry grass and shrubs are fuel for wildfire.
  • Don't let debris and lawn cuttings linger. Instead, dispose of these items quickly to reduce fuel for a fire.
  • Inspect shingles or roof tiles. Replace or repair those that are loose or missing to prevent ember penetration.
  • Cover exterior attic vents with metal wire mesh no larger than 1/8 inch to prevent sparks from entering the building.
  • Enclose undereave and soffit vents or screens with metal mesh to prevent ember entry.

Create an emergency plan

  • Assemble an emergency supply kit and place it in a safe spot. Remember to include important documents, medications, and personal identification.
  • Develop an emergency evacuation plan and practice it with everyone in your home and business.
  • Plan two ways out of your neighborhood and designate a meeting place.

In your community

  • Contact your local planning/zoning office to find out if your home or business is in a high wildfire risk area and if there are specific local or county ordinances you should be following.
  • If you are part of a homeowner association, work with them to identify regulations that incorporate proven preparedness landscaping, home design, and building material use.
  • Talk to your local fire department about how to prepare, when to evacuate, and the response you and your neighbors can expect in the event of a wildfire.

During the time a wildfire is in your area

  • Stay aware of the latest news and updates from your local media and fire department. Get your family, home and pets prepared to evacuate.
  • Place your emergency supply kit and other valuables in your vehicle.
  • Move patio or deck furniture, cushions, doormats, and potted plants in wooden containers either indoors or as far away from the buildings, shed, and garage as possible.
  • Close and protect your building's openings, including attic and basement doors and vents, windows, garage doors, and pet doors to prevent embers from penetrating your buildings.
  • Connect garden hoses and fill any pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, tubs, or other large containers with water. Firefighters can potentially use these items during a wildfire.
  • Leave as early as possible before you're told to evacuate. Do not linger once evacuation orders have been given. Promptly leaving your home and neighborhood clears roads for firefighters to get equipment to fight the fire and helps ensure residents’ safety.

After a wildfire has been contained

  • Continue to listen to news updates for information about the fire. Then, return home only when authorities say it is safe.
  • Visit FEMA/Ready.gov for more information regarding wildfire after an emergency.

Learn more about how to protect your home, business, and property at www.firewise.org or disastersafety.org.

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