Oregon Gov. Kotek, fire officials say wet winter could delay wildfires, but drought persists

A wet winter is likely to delay wildfires, but ongoing drought in eastern Oregon could make for a worse fire season east of the Cascades, Gov. Tina Kotek and state fire officials said Tuesday. 

Kotek’s press briefing came just ahead of a forecasted heat wave bringing temperatures in the 90s to the Willamette Valley later this week. 

“Even this week, we are seeing how quickly the weather can turn hot and dry,” she said. “Oregonians should prepare for fire season. Prepare your yard, have an evacuation plan, have a to-go kit. Have a plan if there’s smoke in your community. And above all, do everything you can wherever you are to prevent fires from starting in the first place.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry already has 22 firefighters helping combat ongoing wildfires in Alberta, Canada, where nearly 1 million acres have been destroyed and 30,000 people have evacuated, said Mike Shaw, the department’s fire chief. As fires continue over the summer, firefighters from western states and several Canadian provinces will help each other. 

Shaw said rainy conditions this spring and a strong winter snowpack are good signs. The snowpack – snow accumulated on mountains – is at about 140% of its normal level for this time of year. 

But dry conditions persist in much of the state, and Kotek has declared drought emergencies in six counties. Fire is a bigger risk in dry areas. 

“The persistent drought will play out over the summer in areas where fires start and those drought conditions exist,” Shaw said. “Not certain yet how much spring rain we’re gonna get through the rest of this month and into June, and that will really dictate when we enter our fire season.” 

Even in areas at lower risk for fires, Oregonians can be affected by smoke from fires throughout the state. Leah Feldon, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency continually monitors air quality throughout the state.

People should download the OregonAir app through the Apple App Store or Google Play store to see air quality and smoke conditions in their area, Feldon said. Depending on the air quality, people may want to stay inside or take extra precautions. 

A majority of wildfires are human caused so Oregonians can help prevent them. Check local restrictions before starting fires, including campfires, and make sure fires are fully extinguished before leaving. If the ground isn’t cool to the touch, a fire hasn’t been fully extinguished.

Driving and parking on dry grass or trailing chains, mufflers or other car parts can spark a blaze. And Oregonians should follow local rules around fireworks or burning debris, avoiding both on windy days and in dry areas. 

Kotek said she hopes to include additional money for combating wildfires in the next two-year budget, assuming an economic forecast released next week shows the state in good shape to spend that extra money. 

“We have to protect our communities, which means really looking at the resources that we would normally put into reserve, holding on to some of those things, so we can fund adequate and stable fire prevention and response,” she said. “That’s my pledge to the folks here and that’s what we’re working on.”

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.