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Why the 2020 Fire Season Has Been So Hellish

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Air quality in Portland, Oregon was measured among the worst in the world Sept. 14, 2020, after the city was blanketed with smoke and smog from deadly wildfires spreading across three western U.S. states. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Labor Day weekend 2020 in Oregon was hot and dry, but it had already been a hot, dry summer. That's not so unusual anymore in the Willamette Valley where I live. The forecast for that weekend called for strong winds from the east early, which was unusual.

The outlook quickly turned even more grim before those winds arrived, though. Meteorologists expected gusts of 40 to 50 mph (64 to 80 kmh) in the Portland area. It was late summer, but we hadn't had any of the soaking rain the Pacific Northwest is known for in months, so the trees were a tinderbox. Oregonians from Portland in the north to Medford in the south — a distance of more than 400 miles (643 kilometers) — were warned of the extreme danger of wildfires. Residents were also advised that the electric company would be shutting off the power in anticipation of downed lines in a very dry forest.

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This is sometimes what it's like living through fire season. Oregon, along with California, Washington and other western states, has one every year. But conditions for 2020 have been unprecedented, but not unpredictable. In May, Newsweek reported, "Forecasters are predicting that southwestern Oregon will experience the wildfires first, but the threat of large fire potential is expected to engulf the entire region by August."

Why Are Fire Conditions Worsening?

But fire season is getting worse. We know they are getting longer here in the West; and average temperatures are higher and as a result snowmelt has increased. Cal Fire put it very plainly:

The fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year. Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend.

The Oregon Department of Forestry also noted in April that the last time conditions in southwest Oregon were dry enough to declare the start of fire season at the beginning of May was in 1968. Since then, the region has declared the start of fire season in May just three times, and all have been in the last 20 years: 2001, 2006 and 2020.

So by the time the winds came around Labor Day this year, southwest Oregon was in danger from the tiniest spark. And when the wind came, it was powerful and relentless. It blew down trees and power lines, and it did spark fires, just as predicted. Lots of fires. By Tuesday, Sept. 8, dozens of fires were raging widely across Oregon, burning hot and fast and fanned by the winds. Small fires merged into large fire complexes. They threatened and even engulfed communities, burning down hundreds of homes and entire towns.

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Hundreds of homes in Talent, Oregon, and nearby towns have been destroyed by wildfires.
David Ryder / Getty Images

Thick smoke settled over Portland for nearly two weeks. The city was choked with the worst air quality in the world and we had nowhere to escape. Smoke and fire were everywhere we looked.

My neighborhood was never in any immediate danger, but the orange ball of the sun hanging in the sky like the Eye of Sauron in "The Lord of the Rings" was enough to convince me to have a bag packed and ready to go if necessary — a first for me in the 20 or so years I've lived here. I even emailed friends in a nearby town to plan for where we'd go if we had to leave. I constantly checked the fire and air quality map, the local forecast and the InciWeb site for the nearest fire — and even added shortcuts to them on my cellphone.

I wore the N95 mask I purchased for the COVID-19 pandemic for the first time. The cotton masks I'd been using wouldn't keep out wildfire smoke and particles, I learned. My husband and I even put wet towels against our doors and ran two air purifiers with HEPA filters on high. We didn't leave the house for 10 days. We were more housebound during the fires than we had been in the early days of Oregon's stay at home orders for coronavirus containment.

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Even in a state with a fire season and forests that have adapted to fire, this was bad. And while the 2020 wildfires have been the worst we've seen in the West, they're not going to get better anytime soon. Forests are a complex system, and so there are many reasons for more fires over a longer season, such as ignition sources (like lightning or downed power lines), forest management and climate change.

Climate change is the biggest factor, according to Stanford University climate researcher Noah Diffenbaugh. He was lead author on a paper published in the August issue of Environmental Research Letters that found that over the last four decades, the area burned by wildfires in California each year has increased tenfold. That's a 1,000 percent increase annually on average. "About half of the increase is attributed to global warming," he says. He also notes that four of the five largest fires in California history were burning at the time of our interview in September 2020.

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The study found that California has seen an increase in average temperature of about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) and decreases in average precipitation of about 30 percent over four decades. Those numbers add up to the number of fall fire days with an extreme chance of fire being double what they were in the early 1980s.

In Oregon — as well as Alaska, the Northwest, the Southwest and the Great Plains — average temperatures are up by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius). When the fires began this year, 80 percent of the state was in at least a moderate drought, and we've had a state of drought every year since 2000 but one. Drought stresses trees, and stressed trees have a harder time fending off diseases and insect infestations. Those trees die. Dead trees don't absorb the carbon dioxide created by burning fossil fuels. Dead trees also burn very easily.

When fires burn intensely enough to reach the crowns of tall trees, it can exacerbate the climate change that's causing larger fires in the first place. According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment:

Wildfires can also increase forest openness by killing midstory and overstory trees, which promotes earlier snowmelt from increased solar radiation. This, in turn, leads to more winter runoff and exacerbates dry summer conditions, especially in cooler interior mountains.
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Mormon Lake Hotshots firefighter Sara Sweeney uses a drip torch to set a backfire to protect mountain communities from the Bobcat Fire in the Angeles National Forest Sept. 10, 2020. California wildfires that have already incinerated a record 2.3 million acres this year and are expected to continue until December.
David McNew/Getty Images

Forestry Management and Fire Suppression

There's another factor in these large intense fires: The fact that we rush to put them out. Over the past century or so, fire suppression efforts have been too effective. By putting out every single wildfire, even those that don't threaten homes or other infrastructure, we've allowed fuel to accumulate in the forest. The U.S. Forest Service noted that "frequent, low- to moderate-intensity fire" is a key ecosystem process.

Diffenbaugh, along with many other climate change and wildfire experts, agrees with that assessment. "Humans have been managing vegetation and managing fires for millennia," he says. He went on to explain that there's a long history of both scientific research and indigenous practices that have provided a lot of evidence for which approaches to wildfire risk work, including controlled burns. Forestry practices that reduce fuel also reduce the chance that fires will reach the crowns of adult trees. Controlled burns and smaller, more frequent fires could eventually bring us back to the pre-fire-suppression baseline.

This isn't something that can be reversed in a year or two, though. By some estimates, we'd need to allow 20 million acres to burn at lower intensities in order to correct a century of overly zealous wildfire suppression.

Using controlled burns to address fuels and taking steps to address climate change, such as adhering to the 2015 Paris Agreement, could reduce wildfire risk by 2050. But we can't forget the humans involved. The 79 percent of the fires burning on forestry lands in Oregon in 2020 were human caused. That means anything from a downed powerline to a spark from a car's dragging exhaust pipe or the blade of a lawn mower striking a rock.

"All fires result from multiple ingredients coming together," Diffenbaugh says. "This is also true for effective solutions. The answer to what is causing wildfire risks has multiple dimensions, and what will reduce risk also has multiple dimensions. Is it one or the other? The answer for the cause and the answer for the solution is always in the intersection."

On a Thursday night, thunderstorms finally arrived in northwest Oregon and swept the smoke out of the valley. The fires were still burning — and they would burn for weeks — but firefighters were gaining ground and beginning to contain even the largest of them. Many people who had evacuated were allowed to return to their homes. And in Portland, we could finally open our windows and let in fresh air.

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Daylight in San Francisco turned an eerie orange after the city was lit aglow from massive wildfires burning just across the Bay Sept. 9, 2020.
Philip Pacheco/Getty Images

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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