Wet springs don't always lessen summer fire risk, experts say

Damp weather in the winter and spring doesn’t necessarily protect against wildfires later in the year, according to University of Oregon researchers.

This article was first published in Around the O on April 3, 2024. 

Damp weather in the winter and spring doesn’t necessarily protect against wildfires later in the year, according to University of Oregon researchers.

Instead, increased moisture can act to increase the threat of fire as summer heat bakes the landscape.

“We have large areas regrowing from massive fires from the last three years, and those areas have the susceptibility to burn,” explained Daniel Gavin, a UO professor of geography. “Wet springs can produce abundant grass and shrub cover which are the most flammable for spreading fire. So, in some ways, in some locations where grasses and shrubs are an important fuel type, fire hazard could actually be elevated because of this weather.”

Wildfire cameras detect events and alert dispatchers

When a fire does start, rapid response by firefighters can limit the spread. Cameras provide first responders and incident commanders with much needed situational awareness during a fire.

But before firefighters can even respond to a fire, someone needs to see smoke and determine the location of the ignition.

Oregon Hazards Lab maintains a network of cameras accessible to the public via the internet at ALERTWest. Firefighters can also obtain secure web access for direct camera control.  

The cameras don’t stop searching for wildfires when human beings aren’t watching, however.

“One of the things we're rolling out this summer is early detection of fires by automated methods that are then verified by an operations team. This system works day and night,” said 
Doug Toomey, director of the Oregon Hazards Lab and a professor of geophysics at UO. “In just the last few years, it's grown from a few hundred to roughly 1,200 cameras in several Western states.”

Turning off power grids prevents fires but creates new hazards

As the vegetation dries out and the fire danger increases, more power utilities are voluntarily shutting off the flow of energy through powerlines to avoid sparking wildfires on days where certain weather conditions are met, such as high winds.

These public safety power shutoffs  reduce the risk that powerlines will cause a fire, but they also limit the ability of households to track and respond to the hazard.

“That de-energization is a great way to avoid the risk of those utilities-started fires, but they create a cascade of issues that come from that for communities,” said Amanda Stasiewicz, assistant professor of environmental studies at the UO. “Right now, when we trigger evacuations, we're using instant messaging through apps. If you don't have electricity in rural areas, you often don’t have cell phone service because it's tied to your Wi-Fi.”

Communities lose more than just communication during a de-energization or power shutoff. Water is often delivered by electricity-fed pumps, limiting its availability for drinking, irrigation or fighting a fire. During multiday power shutoff events, loss of refrigeration can cause food stores to go bad. Loss of heating or cooling can impact vulnerable populations, like the elderly, children or those with medical conditions.

Power shutoffs can also affect a community’s ability to protect residents from the health hazards of wildfire smoke.

“You lose air conditioning, you lose air filtration, you lose communication infrastructure,” Stasiewicz said.

Wildfire smoke: Is there good smoke and bad smoke?

“For a while, I think we heard kind of the good smoke versus bad smoke messaging, the good smoke being prescribed burning or other intentionally lit fires that are lit for ecological benefit as well as risk reduction,” said Heidi Huber-Stearns, with the UO Center for Wildfire Smoke Research and Practice.

Huber-Sterns pointed to findings from the 2024 State of the Air study from the American Lung Association showing nearly 4 in 10 residents live in places with unhealthy air. In the West, that pollution often comes as the pollutant known as PM 2.5, the tiny bits of particulate matter in smoke that can penetrate deep inside the lungs.

“The reality is no amount of smoke is OK,” Huber-Stearns said. “Your lungs don't care where the pollution came from.”

And smoke can present a hazard to communities far away from the fire.

“Smoke is tricky and can travel. You don't have to be in a fire-prone area to be thinking about smoke,” Huber-Stearns said. 

When smoke does arrive in a community, research has shown “people of color are disproportionately impacted. Part of this is access and ability to leave areas when smoke occurs,” she said.

Evacuations face new challenges — and alternatives

Stasiewicz said wildfire evacuations have changed in recent years.

“You’d have a couple-day evacuation and you kind of go home and see if your home survived,” she said of fires in the early 2000s.

That’s changed.

“In 2020, we saw people displaced for four months, fires that were burning for over 30 days,” Stasiewicz said. “So people have concerns when it comes to evacuation about how long am I going to be evacuated for and what am I going to do?”

Increased access to information can influence decisions to evacuate, even when no evacuation order is in effect.

Toomey said tools like the ALERTWest cameras allow residents to view fire conditions and make their own decisions about evacuating.

“We've seen this develop in California, where people view the cameras and make decisions themselves,” he said, “not waiting for an alert to come from an emergency manager or from the sheriff's office, but actually be able to evaluate themselves.”

Stasiewicz said some rural communities are organizing to take another approach.

“When it comes to certain populations, like our ranching and logging populations, they're going to have different interests. That landscape, they want to protect their cattle or their forage or their lumber,” she said. “And so we've seen communities actually mobilized into rangeland fire protection associations and timber protective associations. So these industry-agency partnerships were responding to fire as an alternate to evacuation.”

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