Last fall, California’s then-Governor Jerry Brown had a warning to offer:
“This is not the new normal,” Brown said at a November 2018 press conference to update Californians about the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history. “This is the new abnormal, and this new abnormal will continue, certainly in the next 10, 15, 20 years.”
“Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify,” he added.
If Brown’s warning about changing climate conditions holds true for California, is it also something Oregonians must consider to keep themselves safe and healthy? Some already are, particularly when it comes to smoke flowing into populated areas from summer and autumn wildfires. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland won’t hold any outdoor performances during smoke season in 2019; constructing a retractable roof for the popular outdoor theatre is under consideration. This after a couple of busy fire years that included Portland ranking second in the world for bad air and a “do not go outside” advisory for Eugene.
Oregon’s 2017 and 2018 wildfires weren’t the most deadly or largest ever in acreage burned, but they did set records for the cost of fighting them–$514 million last year and $447 million the year before.
Wildfire continues to threaten populated areas in Oregon’s wildland-urban interface, but fortunately without the scale of loss of life California has recently experienced. Last November’s Camp Fire in Paradise CA killed 85 and destroyed most of that forested city.
Some managers are now rethinking what preventive measures fire departments should advocate for homes in the interface, if this level of catastrophe is to be avoided. Evacuation procedures are also in the spotlight, as well as the condition of rural electric power lines. The Camp Fire and several other deadly California wildfires were sparked by electric lines contacting nearby vegetation that had not been trimmed to utility standards.
Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D. is co-founder and Executive Director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE) and is a faculty research associate at the University of Oregon.
Steven Wallace is Fire Chief for the Mohawk Valley Rural Fire Department in Marcola, Oregon. In the fire service since 2000, he has also served as trainer and supervisor for EMTs and emergency medical services. His department works with residents to create safer spaces around rural homes.