Northwest wildfires have burned record number of acres in 2012

Oregon Public Broadcasting

The US Forest Service and BLM say 2012 has been the worst fire season in the last 100 years. Oregon and Washington have experienced fewer fires than average in 2012, but a record number of acres have burned.

A team from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which handles the logistics of fire supression, presented data on the current fire season to Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Wyden chairs a Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests.

Credit: Northwest Interagency Coordination Center
Almost 1.5 million acres burned across the Northwest this season, a 100-year record. Credit: The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

total_fires
Fires this season were larger and more complex than normal, with only half as many total fires as the 10 year average. Credit: The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

Three factors set the stage for larger than usual fires in the Northwest. First, in Southeast Oregon, very little winter snow and a buildup of grasses and sagebrush contributed to the rapid growth of the Long Draw fire, Oregon’s largest fire since 1865, according to the interagency team.

Then, in August and September, thousands of lightning strikes ignited two new waves of wildfires across the region, including the Taylor Bridge, which destroyed 61 primary residences.

Finally, a summer drought, that continues still, has extended fire season and contributed to the growth of dozens of fires in Central and Eastern Washington.

Terry Marcha, a meteorologist with the Coordination Center, says it’s unusual for the Northwest to have such a dry September.

“I think the most important thing is whether or not we get that periodic, maybe every two weeks, a little bit of rain. Because that keeps a lid on things. This year we went through the entire season, not any rain at all.”

Marcha would not draw any conclusions as to whether the unusually large fires in Oregon and Washington might be connected to climate change.

“Research is going on all the time, long range forecasting… but we just don’t know. “

Senator Wyden suggested he thinks climate change and poor forest health may have contributed to the large fires.

“What I think the evidence points to is that the fires are getting bigger, and our resources have getting smaller. That’s what I’ve concluded at this point” Wyden said.

The Forest Service and BLM say so far they’ve spent about $250 billion dollars fighting fires in the Northwest this year.

This story originally appeared through the EarthFix public media collaboration.


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