Summer wildfires could be worse than before due to climate change

Published by Peyton Manning on

The Archie Creek fire was Oregon’s fifth largest fire in 2020, and it decimated over 130,000 acres in the local area.
Photo provided by Peyton Manning / The Mainstream

Spring and summer wildfires could be worse than before due to climate change

With the concern for the summer wildfires in the future and the anxiety for the fall wildfires in the past, the old argument has returned: is climate change a hoax or the truth?

Jim Gersbach from Oregon Department of Forestry said that climate change may explain the severity of the fall wildfires with over 1 million acres burned. Gersbach also has the aegis of Kyle Reed, Douglas Forest Protection Agency fire prevention specialist and public information officer, and Jake Winn, a local deputy forest supervisor through the US Department of Agricultural Forest Service, who agree that the drier seasons and the intensity of recent fires is changing forest management.

The Archie Creek fire, which burned 131,542 acres, was the fifth largest Oregon fire in 2020. This local fire placed in the top 20 most-burned acreage in Oregon fires recorded since 1900. In fact, Oregon’s 2020 fire season included five of the largest fires recorded.

A gradual increase over the last few decades in the average expanse of wildfires is apparent. From 2010 to 2019, an average of 517,270 acres were burned each year, and an average of 354,327 acres were burned each year from 2000 to 2009. The 21st century also holds 15 out of the 20 top recorded fires (see figure 1 and 2 below).

Figure 1 shows an increase in the average number of acres burned for the last three decades.
Chart provided by ODF

Figure 2 reflects the largest fires seen in the state of Oregon for the last 120 years.
Chart provided by ODF

Compared to the data from the decade before, the average burned acreage of fires more than doubled from the 1990s to the 2000s. The 20th century had only seven megafires (fires over 100,000 acres), while the 21st century already has had 16 megafires.

Even with the increase in firefighting equipment and resources compared to the 20th century, the expanse that fires are covering is growing. The explanation may reside with the changing climate.

Scientists argue that climate change causes weather severities, with stronger rainfall, snowfall, drought, wind and storm effects. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency website on climate change, the word climate indicates change: “Climate is defined not only by average temperature and precipitation but also by the type, frequency, duration, and intensity of weather events such as heat waves, cold spells, storms, floods, and droughts.”

Oregon’s Labor Day fires occurred because of severe drought, an increase in thunderstorms, and extreme winds of about 70-90 mph, according to Gersbach. The east winds were one of the largest contributing factors to the fires’ intensity.

These winds blew embers and ashes miles farther than the existing area of the fire. Unfortunately, those hot embers produced more fires up to two miles away. Firefighters were forced to focus only on the evacuation of endangered people because no feasible ditch could cut off a fire’s supply.

During Labor Day week, resources were scarce because of the number of fires happening not only in Oregon but also in neighboring states.

“Normally, when you get a big fire, you bring resources from an area that is safe,” said Gersbach. “But everywhere in the West Coast was dealing with problems.”

One of the ongoing problems is going to be how to fund these large fires. According to the Salem Statesman Journal, the 2020 fire season cost over $350 million. In comparison, the education budget for 2019-2021 was about $11.48 billion.

The severity of the fires caused homes and whole towns in Oregon to be destroyed. Gersbach said that hundreds of loggers’ and mill workers’ jobs were affected, thousands of small woodland owners lost their investments, logging companies lost equipment and resources, and some mill workers were laid off of their jobs. The cost and lifelong impact of the wildfires is immeasurable.

Although 2020 had one of the most severe fire seasons in history, it wasn’t the only devastating one. The 1930s also saw severe wildfires (see figure 3 below).

Figure 3 shows the number of acres and the number of fires per year since 1900, and a great number of fires occurred in and around the 1930s.
Chart provided by ODF

For more information on statistics of Oregon wildfires, visit the Oregon Department of Forestry website.

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