Wildfire, climate change impacts amplify urgency for bold action

Photo courtesy of <a href="https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/photograph/6461/10/93553">InciWeb)</a>

A helicopter dumps water over the Milepost 97 wildfire in Jackson County on July 29, 2019. (Photo courtesy of InciWeb)

Summertime is when we in the Pacific Northwest are likely to feel climate impacts the most. Every year that we delay action, the costs mount–both at home and abroad. As global temperatures rise, climate instability results in more drought, wildfires, hurricanes and floods at the cost of our global food supplies and natural-resource economies.

At home, 2.3 million Oregonians already live in areas of drought, which damages crops, pastures, streams, reservoirs, water wells and more, according to recent data from the National Drought Mitigation Center. Another 1 million people live in “abnormally dry” areas of the state, which include negative impacts to the growth of crops and pastures in the short term.

In February, the Oregon Department of Forestry published startling estimates concerning Sudden Oak Death, a disease currently threatening some of Oregon’s iconic trees such as the Douglas-fir in southwest Oregon. A tree pathologist told Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud that without action to lessen the damage, a half billion dollar economic loss could be felt in Curry and Coos counties.

The western areas of drought have created above normal chances for wildfires this season. The dry land provided no help to firefighters who have been battling the Milepost 97 fire since July 24, which reached more than 13,000 acres about a mile south of Canyonville in Douglas County, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry via InciWeb. Up to 1,300 hundred firefighters were called to contain the blaze.

The Associated Press reported the Pacific Northwest reached above-normal levels of fire danger three months earlier than any time in more than 10 years.

“And fire counts are up: As of late June, western Oregon forests had seen double the average number of fire starts from the previous decade — 48 compared with 20. Washington jumped even further, with 194 starts compared with an average of 74.

Even the region around Astoria, Oregon, which frequently gets 100-plus rainy days per year, has seen a dozen small fires in 2018 and 2019, according to data from Oregon’s Forestry Department. That compares with an average of just two per year over the previous decade.”

Across the state, cities and counties continue to prep for the threat of wildfire. In Ashland, officials are considering changing their building codes to require more fire-resilient buildings, a city fire chief told the radio station.

How bad will fires get in our children’s lifetime if global warming continues?

  • In the Willamette River Basin, which spans 12,000 square miles from the Portland to Eugene metro areas, the average area burned by wildfires is predicted to increase up to 9-fold throughout the 21st century, according to Oregon State University’s Institute for Natural Resources.
  • In the Klamath Mountains of SW Oregon, home to many plants and animals that exist in no other part of the world, one-third of the area’s conifer trees could be lost, according to a 100-year simulation. No matter how moderate or severe the simulation, researchers predicted longer droughts, reduced plant survival and an increase in shrubs, which create more fuel for fires.
  • A National Climate Assessment predicts the average area burned by wildfires in the Northwest will quadruple by the 2080s.

How many Oregon homes are in the danger zone?

  • In 2014, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that more than 107,000 homes in Oregon are at “high or very high risk of wildfire damage.”  That’s 8% of all homes with a combined value at $12.7 billion.

What is the economic impact and lost economic activity because of Oregon fires?

  • Wildfires cost Oregon’s tourism industry $51.5 million in 2017, with the lodging, food and beverage services taking the biggest hit. Over all, that includes $16 million in lost wages and earnings for hardworking Oregonians and also $368,000 and $1.5 million in lost in local and state tax revenues, according to Travel Oregon.

It’s critically important that we in Oregon continue to do our share to reduce the harmful emissions that drive climate disruption. The Clean Energy Jobs bill would put a cap on all major sources of climate pollution, require those polluters to pay for permits, and invest money back into solutions that reduce emissions and protect communities from climate damages. The State of Oregon doesn’t currently have enough resources to safeguard communities from wildfire or switch to cleaner energy. The Clean Energy Jobs bill would provide significant resources to make those changes. Specifically to mitigate wildfire risk, the bill would:

  • Provide funding and training for forest health treatments and sustainable forest management, creating jobs in rural areas.
  • Provide resources to clear vegetation near homes and buildings that are close to forest boundaries to reduce fire risks.
  • Retrofit schools and community buildings to have air conditioning and advanced air filtration so that communities have places of refuge during extreme heat and dangerous air quality days due to wildfire smoke.
  • Provide funding to repair roads after fire damage.

Oregon Environmental Council continues to push for strong policies that address the root cause of climate pollution, while generating resources that can make communities more resilient in the face of climate impacts.

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