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Northwest’s Second Worst Fire Season Draws To A Close


On Aug. 6, the fast-moving Rowena Fire burned out of control on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. Craig Thomasian anxiously watched as fire crews worked to protect his home.

Fire crews battle the Rowena Fire in early August.

Fire crews battle the Rowena Fire in early August.

Michael Clapp/OPB

“Fire’s been burning all around it throughout the morning and afternoon,” he said. “The air assets have been amazing. Pin-point drops on the scrub oak. It’s been pretty intense.”

Thomasian and many of his neighbors were evacuated. They didn’t know if their homes would be saved.

“It’s not out of the woods yet,” he said. “There’s nothing you can really do.”

Whether through the efforts of fire fighters, a break in the winds or just by chance, Thomasian’s home didn’t burn.

Others in the Northwest weren’t so lucky.

While it’s not officially over, fire season in the Pacific Northwest is coming to a close. For much of the country, the wetter than average summer meant fewer fires in places that typically burn. But dry conditions here fueled the second worst Northwest fire season on record.

The Rowena fire was one of more than 3,200 fires that broke out in the region this year.

So far, states and the feds have spent more than $446 million to put out fires in the region, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. Last year, fire-fighting costs were closer to $235 million.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, some 1.2 million acres burned in Oregon and Washington.

“That’s almost half the total acreage in the country this year,” said Ed Delgado, the national program manager for predictive services at the agency.

Delgado said for most of the country it was a quiet fire season.

“Washington, Oregon and Northern California have had pretty active years, and most of that was compressed into the six weeks from mid-July to the end of August,” he said.

For more than 43 days in a row, the Northwest was the country’s top firefighting priority, said Carol Connolly, fire information officer at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

At fire season’s peak in late July, some 12,000 fire fighters were working 900,000 acres, she said.

“We had the most resources, the most complexity. It isn’t always about how many fires you have, but the threat to life and property of those fires,” she said.

A smoke column in the Buzzard Complex Fire, east of Burns, Oregon.

A smoke column in the Buzzard Complex Fire, east of Burns, Oregon.

Tanya Nelson

Because of the slow fire season elsewhere, the Northwest was able to get all the resources it needed, Connolly said. Firefighters and equipment could’ve been stretched even thinner if more western states had active fire seasons, she said.

In Oregon, the largest fire was the Buzzard Complex. It started in mid-July and burned nearly 400,000 acres in the eastern part of the state near Burns.

Tracking Wildfires

Wildfires burning across the United States. This map was last updated on 10-21-15. Click a wildfire for more info.

Fire data from Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center (GECSC). Map updated every half hour. Map by Jason Bernert /OPB

In Washington, the Carlton Complex fire burned more than 250,000 acres and destroyed more than 320 homes, Connolly said, becoming the largest fire in the state’s recorded history.

“After that they had floods, all sorts of problems,” she said. “It was a devastating fire for many, many areas up in that Okanogan Valley.”

While September brought some new fires, the National Interagency Fire Center’s Delgado said the fire season is coming to a fast close.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites captured these images of the Carlton Complex Fire in July 2014.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites captured these images of the Carlton Complex Fire in July 2014.

Jeff Schmaltz/LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

“We’re getting this cool weather bringing in rain, and that’s going to, really, it’s going to be hard for those conditions to get back to where the fuels are receptive to fire again,” he said. “So even if you do get another lightning outbreak you might get some more fire starts, but they’re not going to get really big.”

The only year worse than this was 2012 when 1.5 million acres in the Northwest burned, Connolly said.

“I’m glad it’s over,” she said. “It was a very long, challenging year for fire fighters and fire managers. It tested our abilities.”

Connolly cautions that just because a lot of acres burned in the region this year, doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen again next year.

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