Oregon Fire Season: In-Depth Guide

Explore details regarding the Oregon fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors and more.

Published:February 22, 2023
Edited:
April 24, 2024

Table of Contents

    Explore details regarding the Oregon fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors and more.

    When is Oregon’s Fire Season?

    Wildfire season in Oregon typically starts in mid-May and ends with the first rains, usually in late September.1 Droughts, snowpacks, and local weather conditions affect how long Oregon’s fire season lasts, especially in Southwest and Eastern Oregon.

    Risk Factors for Oregon Wildfires

    During the peak fire period in July through early September, wildfires in Oregon typically start by natural causes, usually lightning. The early and late parts of fire season often see human-caused fires.2 Wildfires can start in the middle of winter, and there is often a small increase in new fires when Oregon’s deer hunting season begins in October, but the dry conditions in summer make wildfires particularly dangerous.3

    Climate change is also affecting Oregon’s temperature and relative humidity. This change is expected to extend Oregon’s fire seasons and contribute to more severe fire weather in the Western Cascade mountains. This will result in larger, more frequent fires.4

    Beyond the risk to human life and property, wildfires destroy animal habitats, timberland, and the scenic vistas that beautify Oregon. Fires also can destroy watersheds that channel Oregon’s rainfall into creeks, rivers, reservoirs, and the ocean. This can lead to floods during the rainy season and affect residents’ access to clean water.2

    How is Oregon Wildfire Season Changing?

    Historically, Oregon had frequent fires from late spring until the wetter fall weather. The intensity of these fires would vary based on location, with smaller, more frequent fires consuming forest debris in Central, Southern, and Northeastern Oregon, and larger fires burning less often along the coast.5

    Because of the past 100 years of wildfire suppression and an emphasis on preventing all forest fires, there is excessive fuel in Oregon forests now. Trees have grown much closer together than they did historically. This means that Oregon’s fire season is growing in intensity. Fires spread more easily and can explode out of control quickly with an abundance of available fuel.

    Climate change is also contributing to Oregon’s increasing wildfire season. A study by Portland State University (PSU) students ran climate change projection simulations to see what effect different scenarios would have on Oregon’s fire season. Projections showed that it could increase by 8-32 days over 30 years.4

    With the rising frequency and size of fires in the state, Oregon forests are being cleared out extensively and tree cover is reduced. This leads to a decreased snowpack in areas that experienced a severe fire. Snowpack is essential for storing water in the Western United States, building up water stores in the winter, and releasing water during snowmelt in the spring and summer months.6 In areas already experiencing earlier snowmelt due to climate change, wildfire conditions further shift the melting period. The more exposed conditions in burned forests reduce the snowpack in burned areas and create earlier snowmelt conditions. These shifts affect water supply and flood risks throughout Oregon.7

    A 12-month calendar marks the historical fire season in OR (May to Oct) & notes factors to it changing: climate & overgrown forests.
    Climate change, combined with overgrown forests, is causing Oregon’s fire season to become longer and more intense.

    Recent Oregon Wildfire Incidents

    The largest fire in Oregon during the 21st century was the Long Draw Fire. The fire was started in 2012 by a lightning strike in Southeastern Oregon rangeland, and it burned 558,198 acres.8 There have been fires in recent years that came close to this level of devastation and strongly impacted Oregon’s economy, infrastructure, and recreation. Below are some recent major wildfires in this state, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.9

    Double Creek Fire (2022)
    Start Date: 8/24/2022
    Location: Wallowa, Northeast Oregon Fire Protection District
    Acres Burned: 171,312
    Cause: Lightning
    Cougar Peak Fire (2021)
    Start Date: 9/7/2021
    Location: Lakeview, Klamath-Lake Fire Protection District
    Acres Burned: 91,730
    Cause: Under investigation
    Bootleg Fire (2021)
    Start Date: 7/6/2021
    Location: Klamath-Lake Fire Protection District
    Acres Burned: 413,744
    Cause: Lightning
    Illinois Valley Support Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 9/8/2020
    Location: Grants Pass, Southwest Oregon Fire Protection District
    Acres Burned: 152,270
    Cause: Human (powerlines, under investigation)
    Riverside (ODF) (2020)
    Start Date: 9/8/2020
    Location: Molalla, North Cascade Fire Protection District
    Acres Burned: 138,054
    Cause: Human (recreation, under investigation)
    Archie Creek and Star Mountain Fires (2020)
    Start Date: 9/8/2020
    Location: Douglas County, Douglas Forest Protective Association
    Acres Burned: 130,000
    Cause: Under investigation
    Holiday Farm Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 9/7/2020
    Location: Eastern Lane County, South Cascade Fire Protection District
    Acres Burned: 173,393
    Cause: Human (public utility, under investigation)
    Lionshead Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 8/16/2020
    Location: Santiam, North Cascade Fire Protection District
    Acres Burned: 204,469
    Cause: Lightning
    Beachie Creek Fire (2020)
    Start Date: 8/16/2020
    Location: Santiam, North Cascade Fire Protection District
    Acres Burned: 193,566
    Cause: Human (under investigation)
    Klondike Fire (2018)
    Start Date: 7/15/2018
    Location: Gold Beach, Coos Forest Protective Association
    Acres Burned: 175,258
    Cause: Lightning
    Eagle Creek Fire (2017)
    Start Date: 9/2/2017
    Location: Molalla, North Cascade Fire Protection District
    Acres Burned: 48,831
    Cause: Human (juveniles using fireworks)
    Chetco Bar Fire (2017)
    Start Date: 7/12/2017
    Location: Gold Beach, Coos Forest Protective Association
    Acres Burned: 190,590
    Cause: Lightning

    Utilize WFCA’s Fire Map to search for the status of an active wildfire in Oregon. Users can zoom in and select each individual fire to get instant access to the latest published information.

    Historical Oregon Wildfire Trends

    Oregon has a wide range of climates and diverse forests, and fire has always been a part of the ecosystem in the state. Frequent, low-intensity fires kept forests healthy and resilient in Central, Southern, and Northeastern Oregon, burning every 4-20 years. Wildfires in Western Oregon and along the Oregon Coast were rare, happening every 200-500 years, and were much more intense.5

    Lightning started many of the smaller fires that cleared dry Oregon forests, and is a major cause of wildfires now, but Native peoples living in the area also used fires to promote ecosystem health in the following ways:

    • Reduce fuel build-up on the ground keep wide spacing between large, fire-resistant trees (e.g., Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir trees)
    • Cycle nutrients back into the soil
    • Decrease the impact of diseases and bugs on plants
    • Build out habitat for wildlife that thrives in more open forests

    Because many dry forests have missed out on these frequent fires for the past 100 years, combustible fuel buildup has increased dramatically in Oregon forests.5 Many state organizations and researchers are now working to deliver wildfire risk mitigation strategies to regional managers and planners. These fire adaptation plans must balance land use management, fire suppression, and community preparedness.4

    Sources

    1. KOIN 6 News, “Oregon officials prep for 2022 wildfire season.” Accessed February 3, 2023.
    2. City of Eugene, Oregon, “Wildfire.” Accessed February 3, 2023.
    3. The Oregonian, “Fire season over for half of Oregon; eastern, southern regions need more rain.” Accessed February 3, 2023.
    4. PSU, “Oregon’s Western Cascades watershed to experience larger, more frequent fires, PSU study finds.” Accessed February 7, 2023.
    5. Oregon Explorer, “Historical Wildfire Conditions in Oregon.” Accessed February 7, 2023.
    6. EPA, “Climate Change Indicators: Snowpack.” Accessed February 9, 2023.
    7. American Geophysical Union, “Wildfire Impacts on Snowpack Phenology in a Changing Climate Within the Western U.S.” Accessed February 3, 2023.
    8. The Oregonian, “Oregon’s largest wildfires.” Accessed February 3, 2023.
    9. Data.Oregon.Gov, “ODF Fire Occurrence Data 2000-2022.” Accessed February 3, 2023.

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