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Southern Oregon's smokiest decade

Southern Oregon’s worst summers for wildfires have all fallen within the past six years, coinciding with the region’s warmest summers in more than a century.

The low point came in 2018, when Rogue Valley air quality dropped, at one point, to the worst in the world, and wildland fire agencies burned through $128 million trying to put out just two of the region’s largest fires.

But it wasn’t just the 3,000-plus lightning strikes that peppered Southwest Oregon on July 15, 2018, and sparked 145 wildfires that contributed to the region’s bad air quality and the state’s most expensive and destructive wildfire season. The hot, dry summer with multiple days of triple digit temperatures already had set the stage.

June 1 to Aug. 31, 2018, is among the warmest summers Medford has seen in 108 years, with an average temperature of 73.6 degrees, National Weather Service data shows. That measurement accounts for all daily high and low temperatures. The average for that period is 70.3 degrees, Weather Service officials said.

“These conditions set the stage for a ‘perfect storm,’” National Weather Service meteorologist Shad Keene said.

That perfect storm of arid land, vicious lightning and resulting fires resulted in 24 of the year’s 365 days at “unhealthy” or worse levels in Medford alone, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.

At rock bottom — July 23, 2018 — Jackson and Klamath counties air quality was considered the worst in the world, according to air quality monitoring website airnow.gov. At that time, Shady Cove air had dipped to “hazardous” levels, while Ashland, Medford and Klamath Falls were listed at “very unhealthy.” That doesn’t include the 11 additional days where air was considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” EPA data shows. “Sensitive groups” include people with health conditions such as asthma.

The foul air dealt a significant blow to the regional economy, too.

In 2018, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival lost nearly $2 million due to cancellations and moved performances. Crater Lake National Park saw a significant dip in visitations.

The wine industry also took significant hits, with declines in tasting room visits, and Napa Valley winery Copper Cane rejected thousands of tons of wine grapes, claiming they had been tainted by wildfire smoke.

While it was Southwest Oregon’s worst fire season in modern history, it certainly is not alone.

Weather Service data shows the four years when wildfire smoke impeded air quality the most during the past two decades all happened within a recent six-year period that saw the warmest summers in 108 years. There were the 24 days of unhealthy or worse air in 2018 are followed by 15 in 2017, 12 in 2015 and nine in 2013.

“The top four hottest years are all from this decade,” Keene said.

Two other recent years — 2014 and 2016 — were also at the top of the heap for temperature, though fires did not impact air quality to the same degree, data shows.

The year 2019 has been a sharp contrast. Through Dec. 16, the EPA documented four days where air quality had dropped to unhealthy levels or worse. Those four days were in succession, running July 26-29 when the 13,119-acre Milepost 97 fire — started by an illegal campfire — in Douglas County was burning. Those four days were bookended by two of the three days where the air was unhealthy for sensitive groups. It still was a warm summer, but significantly cooler than 2018, with only two days at 100 degrees or more compared to the 10 in 2018. Drought conditions also were “minimal,” Keene said.

Fewer fires meant easier access to wildland firefighting resources and personnel, resulting in quicker knockdowns.

“(In 2018) there was so much going on. There were so many fires across the state, across the West, that when we needed resources. They weren’t always available,” former Oregon Department of Forestry public information officer Natalie Weber said in late September 2019, on the eve of the most recent fire season’s end. “This year, it was a much quieter year all the way around, and so when we had fires and we had initial attack situations going on, we could call and get five helicopters and four air tankers.”

With several summers of smoky summers in the rearview mirror, officials are planning for future wildfire seasons, too.

On Jan. 30, 2019, Gov. Kate Brown established the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response, intended to review the state’s models for wildfire prevention and response.

Recommendations to mitigate the effects listed in the governor’s report include an active management plan in forests and rangelands that includes thinning, prescribed burns and fuel removal on 5.6 million acres of land. Such a treatment plan comes with an estimated $4 billion price tag over 20 years, or $200 million a year.

“Studies suggest the comprehensive costs of wildfire (e.g. economic losses, lost taxes, damages to ecosystem services, destruction of infrastructure, depreciated property values, etc.) on average, are 11 times greater than the immediate costs of firefighting,” the report reads.

Warming is projected to continue during this time. Temperatures warmed in the Pacific Northwest by about 1.3 degrees from 1895 to 2011, according to a 2014 National Climate Assessment report. Looking ahead, average annual temperatures are expected to increase 3.3 to 9.7 degrees by 2070 to 2099.

And while it warms, Oregon’s population is continued to see a steep rise. Citing the U.S. Census Bureau and Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, the report states that Oregon’s population is forecast to grow by 500,000 people by 2030. Much of that growth is expected to occur in wildland-urban interface areas where homes are built close to wildfire-prone lands, the Governor’s Wildfire Council report states.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, who is on the governor’s wildfire council, introduced a $6.8 million wildfire prevention bill during a fall 2019 legislative session that fizzled, but Marsh anticipates similar legislation will be introduced in future sessions.

“We’ll try to get the conversation really going in the short session, but I think the year that follows will also be critical,” Marsh said. “We’ll be doing a lot more work in 2020 to try to figure out how to do the work to scale. That’s part of the whole conundrum here. We know that we need to be doing the work on a widespread basis, certainly around our high-risk communities. How you do that, who does that, what the governing structure is, how you incorporate private landowners, those are all questions that need to probably get a lot more discussion.”

Marsh said planning for future summers is smart and strategic and also speaks to an “existential question” in the area: How do we learn how to manage and live with smoke and fire, and how do we become more resilient in the face of it?

“I think we have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the future, and that’s going to include some smoke and fire,” Marsh said. “It would be foolish for us not to put into place strategies to keep our communities as safe as possible.”

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

Two tourists make their way through downtown Ashland wearing face masks from because of poor air quality. Mail Tribune file photo.
An Oregon State Police Trooper dodges ash from a fire burning along Interstate 5 near Rogue River Thursday in 2011. Mail Tribune File Photo