Number of human-caused wildfires in Oregon down nearly 20%
The view from a wildfire tower in the central Cascades in 2022 is obscured by smoke on Sept. 11, 2022, almost two years to the day after the 2020 Labor Day wildfires. (Courtesy of Naseem Rakha)
The 2022 wildfire season in Oregon has been among the mildest in the last decade, with human-caused fires down nearly 20% from the 10-year average, according to state data.
Humans are the number one cause of wildfires in Oregon and across the country.
The Oregon Department of Forestry credits the decline to a wetter than normal spring, statewide investments in the firefighting workforce, aircraft and detection cameras and an expansive public messaging campaign about wildfire risks by the department.
In the year to date, it has responded to 806 wildfires in Oregon, down from the 10-year average of 973. Humans caused 587 of this year’s fires, down from the 10 year average of 717 and down nearly 35% from a high of 898 last year. Lightning strikes caused the other 219 fires this year, according to the forestry department.
At a recent hearing of the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery, chief of fire protection for the department, Mike Shaw, said it’s tough to know how much of a role each factor played, but credited much of the decline in human-caused wildfires to the public information campaign.
“On the heels of 2020 and 2021, I think those prevention messages really resonated with the public. It’s hard to quantify if that’s true, but that’s my opinion,” he said.
About 97% of wildfires this year were caught within the time they burned 10 acres or less.
In total, fires have burned just over 33,600 acres, well below the 10-year average of 117,827 acres.
Shaw also credited the passage of Senate Bill 762 that passed in 2021 and directed $220 million to help Oregon improve preparedness and response to wildfires. The money was used to increase the number of smoke detection cameras throughout the state and to spend more time looking for fires from planes.
The forestry department logged 100 hours of nighttime flights this summer using infrared and night-vision goggles to detect fires, which caught 56 fires that were otherwise undetected and unreported, according to Jason Cox, a spokesman for the department. It is the only department in the country using these technologies together to detect fires.
At the committee meeting, Shaw said: “If we would not have had the aircraft that we have, we would not have been able to catch those fires that are such a small size, and they would have grown significantly larger and cost much more to suppress.”
Senate Bill 762 also created a $6 million grant program for fire departments statewide to hire more staff going into the fire season.
Statewide, 180 departments hired 450 additional staff because of the grants, according to Travis Medina, chief deputy for the Office of the State Fire Marshal.
“What that really did was allow, especially some of the smaller departments, to have people ready to respond immediately,” Medina said. “They were able to staff up for high risk periods.”
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