GRANTS PASS, OREGON — Deep in the dense forest of Southwest Oregon, 25 miles from this old logging town, tendrils of smoke billow from a charred valley below. To my left sits a copse of 40-year old Douglas Fir, burned to the crowns. The air smells of day-old campfire. The smoke plume is what remains of a handful of late-July lightning fires that scorched nearly 75,000 acres of this remote forest, sandwiched between I-5 and the Oregon coast.
I went on the ground with Google Glass and Brian Ballou of the Oregon Department of Forestry to scope out the damage. Take a look:
By now, the burning of the American West is familiar news. People frequently associate massive wildfires raging for weeks on end with the more arid and drought-stricken Southwest but in recent years, even the traditionally wetter Pacific Northwest has seen an increase in fire activity.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a compilation of climate and weather data from the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all but the Northwest corner of the state is mired in conditions ranging from abnormally dry to severe drought. That has made for a particularly devastating fire season.
While Oregon has seen large fires in the past, the trend toward hotter, drier conditions — and greater risk of wildfires — is clear. As of September 10, Oregon’s state-protected lands have seen a ten-fold increase in acreage burned over the 10-year average. Throughout the entire state, more than 230,000 acres have burned. Last year was even worse — in 2012, nearly 1.3 million acres burned statewide.
“The Northwest has warmed, that’s indisputable,” says Kathie Dello, Associate Director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Dello was the lead editor on a 500-page report released by a team of academics in 2010 assessing how climate change will impact the state in coming decades. The findings were sobering. The researchers concluded that Oregon will see a rise in .2–1 degree Fahrenheit a decade through the 21st century, which they attribute primarily to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to man-made burning of fossil fuels.
“Warm and dry conditions are what we should expect to see in future summers,” Dello said. “Which means increased fire danger, increased incidents of drought. We tell [the public] that we need to prepare for this, this isn’t going away.”
What this means for Oregon is a future that looks a lot like the drought-stricken and fire-plagued Southwest. In addition to being ecologically damaging, fires have many ancillary negative effects on health, water supplies, tourism and budgets. According to Rod Nichols of the Oregon Department of Forestry, fighting the July and August infernos put his agency in the red. The department has already burned through all of its allotted firefighting funds, including a $25 million catastrophic loss insurance policy.
“We’ll probably be going back to the legislature and asking for $16 million that we’ve overrun that the state general fund will have to pick up,” said Nichols.
If September brings more fires, the overrun could be even more substantial. And that’s not even taking into account the costs to health and well-being, from particulate matter in the air to impacts on fresh water.
“You can get post-fire landslides and the problem carries on down the slope into the water that feeds into the major river systems,” says Brian Ballou, a Wildland/Urban Interface Specialist with the Oregon Department of Forestry and a 40-year vet fighting and monitoring fires in the region.
“You get blockages, you get flooding, heavy siltation in spawning beds. It can even affect downstream areas where people live.”
In the Eastern part of the state, residents living near The Dalles recently got a scare when they started to notice a smoky taste and odor in their drinking water after a fire filled a nearby drainage basin. State officials have declared the water safe to drink, but the threat of future water contamination remains.
And in Southern Oregon, the Red Cross had to distribute 20,000 respirator masks to communities plagued with dangerous air pollution stemming from multiple fires. As Oregon Public Broadcasting reported, “Medford asthma specialist Dr. Kevin Parks says he’s used to seeing an uptick in patients during fire season in the Rogue Valley, but this year it’s much worse.”