You might be familiar with that classic drinking song "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," made famous in a recording by Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett.
That song kept popping into our heads as we reflected on the mid-valley's lighter-than-expected fire season this year. The state's firefighting agencies recently officially declared the end of Oregon's 2019 fire season, and it was considerably quieter than what we've experienced in previous summers. Even better, it came and went in Oregon without the big, intense fires that scar the landscape and choke the state's skies with smoke. Even southern Oregon caught a break this year.
All told, wildfires burned only 67,795 acres during this year's season, less than a tenth of the 883,405 acres that burned last year. The cost of fighting those fires took a commensurate plunge, dropping to about $58 million this year compared with a record $530 million in 2018.
The weather was cooperative: Thanks to generally cooler temperatures and greater humidity, especially in the state's mountains, Oregon's forests didn't dry out to the extent they had in previous years. As a result, when fires did break out, they didn't explode into the intense blazes that we've suffered through during recent years. And this year, the lightning storms that occur every summer usually were accompanied by rain, which dampened the chances that a lightning strike could smolder for days before breaking out into a full-fledged fire.
A recent story in the Statesman Journal newspaper in Salem explained how fire managers measure fire danger largely in terms of what's called the "energy release component" in forests; it's a measurement designed to gauge how hot a fire could burn if it were to break out in a forest. Three of the last five years, a U.S. Forest Service official told the newspaper, Oregon's forests were rated at the highest level of danger; this summer, the newspaper reported, Oregon forests were ranked at an average level or even below average.
The light season even allowed fire managers to allow some fires, mostly in eastern Oregon, to burn in a controlled fashion, an encouraging sign as those managers increasingly look for ways to return fire to its natural role in forests. (These controlled blazes also help to clear out the types of undergrowth that can fuel the most intensive fires.)
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So, yes, there's no doubt that Oregon residents (and the tourists who flock to the state during the summer) caught a welcome break.
But yet, to paraphrase the Jackson-Buffett song, "It's fire season somewhere."
As Oregonians breathed a sigh of relief that the 2019 fire season officially was over, fire managers elsewhere in the West were getting ready to cope with red flag warnings in states like Utah and Colorado. In fact, Wednesday in Northern California, more than a million people were without electricity as the state's largest utility pulled the plug, fearful that energized power lines could spark wildfires if forecasts for dry, gusty weather had panned out. It's worth remembering that last year's Camp Fire, the most destructive fire in California history, occurred in November. Closer to home, the first wildfire of note in the mid-valley this year, the blaze at the Santiam State Recreation Area, took place in March, shockingly early in the season.
At the time of that fire, we worried that it signaled another long and brutal season for Oregon. We are grateful that it didn't work out that way.
Despite that gratitude, we remain worried that this year's light fire season will be the exception that proves the rule. We should take advantage of this grace period to continue our work to take better care of our forestlands, to make sure our firefighters have the resources they need to adequately fight blazes and to build fire-resilient communities throughout Oregon and the West. It may not be fire season in Oregon right now. But it will be again, and probably sooner than we expect. (mm)