FIRE IN OREGON'S FORESTS
Fire has always been part of the forest ecosystem, although Oregon has different kinds of forests that have been shaped by different kinds of fires.
- Dry Forests: In the dry ponderosa pine forests of central and eastern Oregon, fire historically burned through any given area every two to 25 years. But the fires generally were not intense. Understory plants were burned off, but large trees usually survived.
- Wet Forests: In the wet Douglas-fir forests on the west side of the Cascades and in the Coast Range, fire in any given stand is much less frequent, occurring every 100 to 450 years. The historic record shows numerous instances of large, intense fires that killed most of the forest.
- Southwest Oregon Forests: Interior southwest Oregon forests experience some of the dryness of east-side forests, but with productivity more like west side forests. They are intermediate in fire behavior, and historically burned with mixed severity every 25 to 50 years.
2020 LABOR DAY FIRES
Over Labor Day weekend 2020, unusually high winds and extended dry weather caused the rapid expansion of multiple wildfires in Oregon. Over a million acres were burned, with the worst fires concentrated in the heavily populated western part of the state. About 40,000 people were evacuated because of fire danger. An additional 500,000 people were asked to prepare to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The cities of Blue River, Detroit, Gates, Phoenix, Talent and Vida were substantially damaged in the Labor Day fires. Statewide, nine people died and more than 4,000 homes were destroyed. Hazardous smoke from the fires blanketed the state, posing a public health risk in the midst of a pandemic.
Following Labor Day weekend 2020, Oregon simultaneously had five “megafires” – fires greater than 100,000 acres in size – and eight other large fires of about 1,000 acres or more. Four other smaller fires that burned less than 1,000 acres also broke out. All 17 of these fires either started or blew up on Sept. 7 and 8, 2020.
RECENT FIRE SEASONS
Oregon had two very different fire seasons in 2019 and 2020. The 2019 season was relatively quiet, while 2020 was one of the worst the state has ever experienced. The increasing number of catastrophic fire seasons such as Oregon experienced in 2020, 2018 and 2017 are due to a number of factors, including climate change. A warming climate has led to longer, hotter and drier fire seasons, and contributed to more drought and insect outbreaks that weaken or kill trees and make forests more susceptible to wildfire damage.
OREGON'S COMPLETE AND COORDINATED FIREFIGHTING SYSTEM
The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) serves as the fire department for 16 million acres of private and public forestland, including state forests and, by contract, federal Bureau of Land Management forests in western Oregon. The U.S. Forest Service maintains its own system to suppress fires on national forests, but collaborates with ODF on firefighting efforts.
ODF strives to put out fires quickly and at the smallest possible size, to protect human lives and property as well as timber-producing forests that support Oregon’s economy. This is accomplished through a complete and coordinated system that brings together personnel and resources from other public agencies, private forest landowners and contractors to help ODF fight fires.
GOVERNOR’S COUNCIL ON WILDFIRE RESPONSE
In early 2019, Gov. Kate Brown created the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response to review Oregon’s current model for wildfire prevention, preparedness and response, analyzing whether the current model is sustainable given the state’s increasing wildfire risks. Later that year, the council identified the need for comprehensive change and released a set of recommendations aimed at helping Oregon achieve the goals of creating fire-adapted communities, restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes, and responding safely and effectively to wildfire.
RESTORING FEDERAL FORESTS’ FIRE RESILIENCE
The state and federal government, in partnership with local stakeholders, are working to accelerate restoration work aimed at improving the health and fire resiliency of Oregon’s federal forests. Since 2016, an agreement known as Good Neighbor Authority has allowed ODF to assist with accomplishing forest restoration projects on federal lands. In 2019, Gov.Kate Brown signed a shared stewardship agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to increase this type of forest restoration work.