UO experts: Wildfires across Oregon herald one possible future

The catastrophic wildfires spreading at stunning rates across Oregon, Washington and California owe in part to climate change, but — at least in the Willamette Valley foothills — it’s hard to say whether such devastating burns are an anomaly or a portent, say wildfire experts at the University of Oregon.

The large, fast-spreading Holiday Farm Fire east of Springfield is a wake-up call for how quickly even worst-case scenarios for wildfire risk can be overwhelmed by reality, said Bart Johnson, a professor of landscape architecture who studies climate change adaptation planning.

Johnson’s research group explored wildfire risk for the Willamette Valley foothills between 2007 and 2057, based on two models for climate change in a 200,000-acre area abutting Eugene and Springfield. The Holiday Farm Fire, which as of Thursday had surpassed 145,000 acres, is already more than three times bigger than the largest fire under 600 future simulations in Johnson’s research, he said.

The Willamette Valley has high volumes of flammable fuels, more, in fact, than in many areas of California that have burned intensely in recent years. But this area historically hasn’t had the extreme heat waves or the hot dry winds from the east that have driven explosive wildfires in California. “Those all came together with the Holiday Farm Fire,” Johnson said, “and only the future will tell if it was an anomaly or a sign of times to come.”

The current Oregon fires are propelled by a coming together of high fuel loads, severe drought, high temperatures and somewhat uncommon winds out of the east that have pushed the blaze down the mountain slopes into populated areas at lower elevations.

Climate change has increased fire risk across much of the western U.S., but west of the Cascade Mountains, different climate change models point to substantially different future climates, Johnson said, and thus make it more challenging to forecast the potential for catastrophic fires.

In his team’s research, one climate model suggested that future wildfires would be similar to those of the recent past, whereas the other projected extreme wildfires unlike those seen in recent history.

“Until a few days ago it was looking like the tamer wildfire projections were closest to reality,” Johnson said. “It just shows how quickly we can be overwhelmed by climate-driven risk that makes lessons of the past completely insufficient to prepare us for what the future may hold.”

It’s also feasible that a devastating burn such as the Holiday Farm Fire will prompt major efforts to reduce the severity of future events, he added.

“Agencies and community wildfire groups have been very aggressive in trying to implement fuels treatments that can limit the spread and severity of future wildfires by counteracting decades of fire suppression,” Johnson said. “Counterintuitively, we may need more fire not less, such as prescribed burns, to prepare the landscape to receive wildfires in a way that’s easier to control and less likely to be so destructive.”

Dan Gavin, a geography professor who specializes in forest ecology, said some types of fire that have burned in the past in the western Cascades are beneficial, for example, the lightning-ignited fires that can occur midsummer, which if allowed to burn just “creep around” and can create a healthy forest with trees of various types and ages.

However, the Holiday Farm Fire is something different, he adds; it started when an ignition near a population base, the Rainbow community northeast of Eugene, met with some of the strongest winds ever recorded there, gusts of up to 40 mph from the east, creating an intense blaze that burns out of control.

“Ignitions at exactly the time and place when fire will spread the fastest is a terrible situation,” Gavin said.

Protecting lives and property is far and away the priority, he added. But eventually forest officials may be able to review the cause of ignition and the burn pattern to determine strategies for lowering the probability of fire and the resulting fire intensity in specific areas.

As fires encroach upon heavily populated areas, so increases the need and desire for information.

Kelli Matthews, a senior instructor in the School of Journalism and Communication, has supported communications for companies that provide wildfire suppression response and also the National Wildfire Suppression Association. Those communications include crisis and issues management, general public relations needs, firefighter recruiting and more.

Professional, private firefighting companies provide about 40 percent of the “boots on the ground” resources nationally and closer to 60 percent in the west, Matthews said. This includes 20-person hand crews, engines with two to three people and a fire truck, and heavy equipment such as air support and bulldozers.

These resources go through the same training and meet the same requirements as state and federal resources, and they work closely with them on the fire line. Crews are dispatched often with little notice — they have to be ready to go within an hour — and will be on the fire line for up to 14 days, Matthews said.

Her advice: “Listen to directions from officials and follow official sources on social media. There’s a lot of misinformation on social media and it only leads to more fear and anxiety.”

—By Matt Cooper, University Communications