Science and Environment

What role is climate change playing in this year’s historic wildfire season?

By Tiffany Camhi (OPB) and Crystal Ligori (OPB)
Sept. 14, 2020 1 p.m.

The Pacific Northwest is experiencing a wildfire season unlike any other in history. Now, these unprecedented fires have many people wondering how we got to this point. In a press conference last week, Oregon Gov, Kate Brown nodded to global warming.

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“While our state reels from this horrific firestorm of dry weather, hot wind and drought conditions, this will not be a one-time event,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, it is the bellwether of the future.”

And many climate scientists agree that climate change will only make wildfires worse. John Abatzoglou is a climatologist and associate professor at the University of California, Merced. Abatzoglou has focused his research on how our warming climate drives wildfires. OPB’s Tiffany Camhi spoke with him about how climate change factored into Oregon’s fire season this year.

Tiffany Camhi: Let’s just get straight to it. How much can we blame climate change for these fires?

John Abatzoglou: We can certainly blame the extent of these fires, right now, on the incredibly warm and dry conditions that have baked across much of the western United States, including Western Oregon. Oregon is coming out of a pretty dismal water year. So the fuels, vegetation, were dry entering into the fire season. And then on top of this, we had an incredible downslope wind event that really fanned those fires. So climate change is involved. It’s involved through the role of providing more drying on those fuels.

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Camhi: Is this downslope wind event unusual for the Pacific Northwest?

Abatzoglou: Offshore wind events are a part of the climatology. We do see them from time to time but they don’t usually result in multiple, large fires that spread westward from the Cascades to the coast in Oregon and Washington. So that is very unusual. The timing of this event, how strong it was and how it occurred — when we had just incredibly dry fuels — that combination of ingredients was exceptional in the period of record.

This is a sort of a one-off event. We do not expect years like this to happen all the time. But Oregon has certainly seen an increase in fire activity and smoke is not something that’s new to the state. Our summers are certainly changing.

Camhi: Should we — fire managers, local state leaders, people living in the Pacific Northwest — have been more prepared for something like this?

Abatzoglou: Fires do happen in Oregon and Washington, even in the wetter areas. This is a little bit different though, right? There were upwards of five or six fires all over 100,000 acres, all burning simultaneously towards populated areas. I think this event is proving that we all have to become fire aware, even if we are in an area that we don’t think is at fire risk. It may very well be.

Camhi: Is there anything that we can do to lessen the severity of these fires once fire season comes around?

Abatzoglou: I go back to thinking about the ingredients you need for fire. Those ingredients are fuel or vegetation. We need to have that fuel be dry enough. We need ignition sources and we need fire weather. And so a couple of those are a little bit beyond our control and I won’t go into sort of solving climate change, even though that is an important issue. We can, however, remove a couple of those other ingredients. Namely, we can reduce fuels in certain areas that might be at risk, particularly near communities. That can be done through fuel reduction, treatments or prescribed burning. And then, of course, you can reduce human-caused ignitions. Those fires are bad fires. They’re not supposed to be happening on the landscape near where people live. So through technology and enforcement, we can improve getting rid of unintentional fires in the landscape caused by humans.

You can hear the full interview with climatologist John Abatzoglou in the audio player above.

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