Oregon officials are bracing for a challenging wildfire season

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — Two months of heavy spring rain has pushed back the start of Oregon’s wildfire season, but when the weather pendulum finally swings back to warm and dry, the state will still be in for an extremely challenging summer.

That was the takeaway at a press conference Monday morning hosted by Governor Kate Brown.

Brown said her office has already declared drought emergencies in 15 Oregon counties, a higher total for this point in the year than in any prior year while she’s been governor.

“We are seeing conditions in place that indicate another challenging fire season ahead,” she said. “While many of us have experienced a lot of rain recently, in many parts of the state we’re already seeing megadrought.”

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The rain has been primarily concentrated in northwestern Oregon, which has allowed more mountain snowpack to accumulate and resulted in no major areas with drought conditions, according to Oregon Department of Forestry fire chief Mike Shaw.

Southern and eastern Oregon haven’t been so lucky, he said. Cooler temperatures have prevailed through the spring in those areas, but without much accompanying precipitation to make a dent in the drought.

“I happen to live in eastern Oregon and I can tell you that while it has been cooler and damper, the actual accumulation of rain has been marginal at best across eastern Oregon,” he said.

The timing of the start of wildfire season will depend on how much longer the current weather pattern persists, he said, but high drought levels mean that wildfire conditions will arrive very quickly once the cooler weather lets up.

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“I would say we’re in better shape than we would have been if March weather had continued, but it’s still going to be challenging when we make that transition to warmer and dryer weather,” he said.

Drought conditions are more severe in many parts of the state compared even to 2021, according to Oregon state deputy fire marshal Travis Medema, and last year also saw a below-average lightning season, so even a normal number of lightning strikes could make this year worse than the last.

Brown and other officials at the press conference spoke positively about the passage of Senate Bill 762 last year, and said the wildfire preparedness measure has allowed the state to better position itself to tackle this summer’s fires, particularly because there’s been more time to staff up the ranks of seasonal firefighters.

Brown urged Oregonians to prepare for wildfire season by making plans with their families, signing up for emergency alerts and being 2 Weeks Ready, as well as being careful to avoid accidentally starting fires while outdoors this summer.

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