Oregon wildfires

A firefighter working on wildfires in Southern Oregon. Managers report that this wildfire season was the lightest in decades.

Despite early forecasts of another hot, dry summer, the 2019 wildfire season has been mercifully mild across the Northwest.

Statistics from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland show the region — which includes Oregon and Washington — experienced 3,038 total fires, which is 876 fewer than 2018 and 793 fewer than 2017.

Perhaps more importantly, the number of acres burned was dramatically lower, suggesting a much-needed reprieve from large, destructive “mega-fires.” Oregon and Washington totaled just 204,256 acres burned, compared to 1.3 million and 1.1 million the last two years.

“When we look at the numbers, it really does tell a big story,” said Carol Connelly, spokeswoman for the NICC.

The coordination center combines fire data from multiple state and federal agencies, including the Oregon Department of Forestry, Washington Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and National Park Service.

A similar trend can also be seen in Idaho and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Idaho had 880 total fires in 2019, burning a little more than 282,000 acres. That is far under the 604,481 acres burned in 2018, and 686,262 acres in 2017.

In California, the total number of fires has reached 6,505, yet they have burned just 159,656 acres. Last year’s Camp Fire in Northern California alone burned 153,336 acres. The state as a whole had 1.6 million acres affected by fires, making it the worst season in history.

Nationwide, fires have burned 4.3 million acres in 2019, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. It is the lowest acreage total to date since 2009. The 10-year average is over 6.2 million acres.

Connelly said a few different factors contributed to the Northwest’s relatively calm season. First, weather conditions proved to be cooler and wetter than originally anticipated, which led to updated fire predictions through the summer.

Lightning strikes also largely occurred in places where fire crews could access them easily, Connelly said, meaning the blazes could be controlled quickly before they got out of hand.

“We had plenty of resources on the ground,” Connelly said. “They did really well out there.”

The largest fire this summer in Oregon was the Poker fire, which grew to 23,400 acres in the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Lake County. In Washington, the largest fire was the Williams Flats blaze near the Colville Indian Reservation west of Spokane, which grew to 44,446 acres.

The Oregon Department of Forestry’s Southwest Oregon District, covering Jackson and Josephine counties, was the last district to formally declare an end to fire season on Oct. 1, lifting public use restrictions on things like burning debris piles and operating heavy machinery.

At just 99 days, it was the agency’s shortest fire season in two decades and roughly three weeks shorter than the 121-day average.

“Thanks to a minimum number of wildfires on the landscape statewide, we were fortunate to have adequate resources to respond to fires on our jurisdiction,” said Ron Graham, ODF fire protection chief.

However, Graham cautioned that while the weather warrants lifting fire season, conditions can change quickly.

“Given most of the lighting this time of year is accompanied by rain, human-caused fire starts tend to increase in number,” Graham said. “People are anxious to burn backyard debris piles and can get complacent with fire safety.”

As Oregon pivots out of fire season, ODF districts will begin focusing on prevention efforts such as clearing vegetation, creating buffers around homes and keeping debris burning piles under control. ODF will continue to work with landowners and other agencies to mitigate wildfire risk.

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