A fire burns in Clackamas County the week of Sept. 9, 2020. 

A statewide swath of lightning strikes is the "trigger event" that most worries state officials planning for what could be a second consecutive severe fire season.

Lightning strikes are "a typical event that we have on an annual basis that gives me most concern," said Doug Grafe, the Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Chief. 

Grafe and other state fire, emergency, environmental and health officials held a press call Thursday to lay out strategies to try to keep 2021 from looking like 2020.

Firefighters plan for the worst and hope for the best. Sometimes they get a nightmare like the Labor Day 2020 fires that burned over 1 million acres in Oregon, destroyed thousands of homes and left 11 dead. 

The fires also sent billows of ash that filled the Willamette Valley. Winds drove the toxic flow eastward that for a few days made the air quality in Sisters and Pendleton the worst in the world.

Oregon is still digging out from those fires that broke out amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Improvements and warnings

On the Thursday press call, leading emergency, fire and health officials talked about improvements since last year: Better warning systems. An initial wave of 30 aircraft, some with better instrumentation to see flame through smoke. Pre-positioned fire crews can move fast to contain small fires.

Oregon will again pair with California and Washington to share resources if one state's fires flare earlier than the others. Oregon emergency officials can also tap into a network of state agencies around the nation who can offer help.

Some Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal asset are in Oregon because they never went home last year.

An air quality blog will give faster readings on where smoke is becoming hazardous. More materials will be produced in Spanish language to reach communities that may not be plugged into the existing fire warning systems.

An effort is being made to include more non-digital warnings for those who don't have cell phones or internet.

One of the positive results to come out of the fires last year is that they are fresh in the minds of officials and residents. Evacuation plans can be used again and the devastation likely makes residents more likely to heed warnings.

Early signs show 2021 has the makings of another bad fire year. With a prolonged drought in the western North America and hotter temperatures earlier in the year, the idea of a "fire season" has become outdated. 

"It's a fire year," said Mariana Ruiz-Temple, the state fire marshal.

More and bigger fires over a longer period of months have become the new normal.

“These types of fires are not the types of fires we saw maybe 20 or 30 years ago,” Ruiz-Temple said.

Oregon has already been hit with 300 fires this year, twice the average over the past decade.

More than 2,000 acres have burned, four times more than normal at this time of year. A wildfire on Wednesday briefly closed Interstate 84 near The Dalles in the Columbia River Gorge. The Sycan Fire in rural Klamath County has been contained after burning 615 acres.

Pinpointing when and where the fire danger could get bad is impossible. But state models show peak conditions for fires this summer will migrate westward.

In June, the greatest danger will be in the eastern slopes of the Cascades. July will move the fire danger focus into the Klamath Basin. Last but far from least will be the thickly forested southwest around Medford.

"Really the bullseyes relative to drought conditions and that drives fire potential," Grafe said.

But fire locations can be unpredictable. Last year's fires came down the river valleys of the western Cascades and toward suburban Portland, Salem, Eugene and Roseburg.

The rapidly growing area around Bend has been flagged in studies as a prime spot for a fire in forested areas that are increasingly populated.

But no two disasters are exactly alike. Grafe said the Labor Day 2020 fires were the result of an unprecedented collision of weather events: a cold front, severe winds from the east and drought conditions.

A repeat of the conditions of 2020 is a longshot, Grafe said. But there are earlier disastrous fire seasons that 2021 is mimicking.

Shades of 2013

Grafe said the conditions in late spring this year remind him of 2013, which at the time was the worst fire year in Oregon since 1951.

That spring, the U.S. Weather Service fire forecast maps showed a drought-stricken thick line stretching from San Diego to Mount Shasta in California.

North of the Siskiyou Mountains, the maps' red-hued blob widened to take in all but the northwest tip of Oregon, along with parts of south central Washington, central Idaho, northern Nevada and as far east as parts of Montana.

The map proved ominously prescient for Oregon.

Near the end of July, a line of lighting storms ignited 80 fires that crews raced to tamp down. Fires broke out in mostly wilderness areas in the northeastern part of the state and the flank of Mount Hood. Crews fought flames around Abbott Butte near Sunriver and Bend.

But the biggest hit was in southwest Oregon where five big blazes tore through the tinder-dry forests. The largest was the Douglas Complex centered around Glendale, just west of Interstate 5 between Myrtle Creek and Grants Pass. Billows of ash choked the Rouge River Valley.

For nearly two weeks, federal emergency management officials rated it the worst fire in the nation. 

By August, there were nine large, uncontained fires. Then firefighters got a break.

A surprise cold front that dumped rain on some of the fires, allowing crews a chance to contain the blazes. For once, nature cooperated with ending a catastrophe.

 In the end, just under 200,000 square acres were burned, four homes were destroyed and four firefighters were killed. Newspaper stories of the time called it the worst fire season since the Tillamook Burn in 1951.

What was a shocking level of damage at the time is a quarter of the 2020 acreage, with much higher casualty and property damage than in 2013.

But 2021 is not 2013. Much has changed in the eight years since those fires. Oregon's population then was 3.9 million. Population estimates show up to 500,000 more people live in Oregon today.

The fastest growing area is Deschutes County, which saw a nearly 25% population increase between the 2010 and 2020 census. The growth has pushed more housing into forested areas, in what the U.S. Fire Administration calls the "wildland-urban interface."

If the forests burn again this summer, there are more high-tech tools and strategic planning than in 2013. But it will be stretched to cover a more densely populated landscape.  

Both federal and state agencies have worked to remove underbrush from forest floors that can act as an accelerant for flames. Controlled prescribed burns have been lit to pre-empt possible fire paths.

But state officials said forests and property will be a lesser priority given the population realities.

"Life safety is the number one priority, it is our paramount priority," said Jason Miner, the governor's natural resources policy director.

Grafe, the state forest fire chief, said that in the end it will be up to residents to prepare their homes with supplies of water, food and batteries. Masks used during the COVID-19 pandemic can help slow inhalation of particulates from smoke. 

If the fires grow, residents need to look for alerts. Know evacuation routes in advance and leave as soon as warnings go out.

“I am asking every Oregonian to plan on being a disaster survivor," Grafe said.

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