Salem prepares for “potentially dire picture” from expected hot and dry summer

Bryan Crenshaw sprays water onto his rooftop in Aumsville on Tuesday, September 8. After losing two buildings to a wildfire three years ago, Crenshaw planned on staying through this time to protect his property. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

It’s shaping up to be a hot and dry summer.

John F. Saltenberger, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire weather program manager, said Oregon is going into fire season with the entire state in some form of drought.

“Areas (with) severe or exceptional drought are increasing week by week, even toward the Willamette Valley,” he said. “It’s potentially a dire picture for us.”

Most of Marion and Polk counties are in severe drought. Last month, Salem, as well as Marion and Polk counties issued burn bans because of higher temperatures, low humidity and moderate wind in the forecast. April was the driest month on record, with the National Weather Service in Portland reporting less than half an inch of rain for the month.

April typically sees just over three inches of rain.

Saltenberger said he looked at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data going back to 1950 to see previous dry Mays and Junes in the Willamette Valley.

He said between 1950 and 1992 there were only two years that had an especially dry May and June.

“Since 1992 we’ve had four or more of those years occur,” he said.

Saltenberger referenced a study by U.S. Forest Service and University of Montana researchers that found the number of rainy days in the western United States has been steadily declining since the 1980s. It represents a 40% decline in the number of rainy days during fire season.

“We’re just not getting those reset days as much as we used to,” he said.

Saltenberger said lighting is the main problem for igniting wildfires. He added, “I don’t have any tools to tell how much lightning we’re going to get.”

Greg Walsh, Salem’s emergency preparedness manager, spends a lot of his time trying to prepare people for natural disasters.

One of the first things he asks people, have you ever gone camping?

People who have camping supplies such as a sleeping bag and tent have some of the items necessary for an evacuation kit. The kit should also include food, water and medication.

“If you had to leave your home in 30 minutes, what’s your plan for that?” he said.

Walsh said he was recently interviewed by a college student who asked about equity in preparedness. They wanted to know how he was ensuring the area’s unsheltered people would be prepared for a disaster.

He said, “They’re going to be teaching us.”

Unsheltered people already know what it’s like to go days without running water or access to electricity.

He said people want to know where they should go in the event of an evacuation, but he can’t give an exact answer. He said that will vary depending on where wildfires travel.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] 

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