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A wetter spring in Oregon has forecasters worried about an extended fire season

FILE: Children play in the fountain at the Portland waterfront as the temperature rises to more than 100 degrees in June of 2021.
Hanin Najjar
FILE: Children play in the fountain at the Portland waterfront as the temperature rises to more than 100 degrees in June of 2021.

Oregon could see a much hotter July and August as the region shifts to an El Nino weather pattern later this year.

State researchers predict Oregon could experience a much warmer summer than previous years as the climate shifts to a warmer pattern later this year. But a cooler and wet spring could lead fire season to run longer throughout the year.

Oregon State University researchers recently predicted the state could see a much hotter July and August as the shift from La Niña to El Niño weather patterns begin this year. The shift from La Niña, a naturally occurring cooler weather pattern associated with ocean temperatures an the equator, to El Niño, its warmer counterpart, already hasshown signs of its emergence.

Oregon’s state climatologist, Larry O’Neill, said the transition from one phase to another normally doesn’t impact the Pacific Northwest until late summer or fall. Usually, the region feels the effects in winter, he said.

“While we don’t expect an immediate change in Pacific Northwest weather earlier this summer, we could see abnormally warm and dry weather develop later in the summer attributable to El Niño, depending on how quickly El Niño develops,” he said.

Over the past decade,Oregon summers have already been warmer and drier due to climate change, according to O’Neill, and those trends are expected to continue. He said if the weather pattern develops, it could be the warmest El Niño that Earth has experienced because of rising temperatures from climate change.

Over the past decade, Oregonians all around the state have begun to feel the effects of climate change, including more intense wildfires, extreme heat and drought. The rise in temperatures and the prediction of a warmer summer have some already concerned about the fire season.

That fire season may start later than is typical. Researchers said because of a wet spring and lots of snowpack, the wildfire season could be delayed a few weeks at higher elevations. That isn’t completely good news.

John Bailey, a professor at OSU’s College of Forestry, said he’s concerned a delay in the fire season’s start could be offset by hotter, drier weather stretching into October or even November.

Bailey said when there is a cooler, wetter spring, it makes fuel for wildfires — usually dried out or dead vegetation — more abundant during the warmest months and prone to catching fire.

When heat waves like the onein early May hit the Northwest, it dries up vegetation that has abundantly grown during the wetter months.

“July, August are forecasted to be a little warmer than normal and so that fuel and warmth toward the end of the fire season, I think that’s what has most foresters worried at this point,” Bailey said.

Director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and professor at OSU Erica Fleishman said these predictions should serve as a warning for the state to be better prepared for extreme heat as well.

Some solutions are already in the works, she said, likeregulations for protecting workers laboring in high temperatures. She said other resources like cooling centers and offering heat pumps to households in need should continue. But, she said, the state needs to do more in terms of revising building codes and planting more trees.

“Thinking about the communities that are disproportionately affected by high heat and being able to do some advanced planning, we have that chance now before it really heats up,” she said.

There are several bills in this legislative session that are aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions as well as helping Oregonians adapt to climate change. But an ongoing walkout by state Senate Republicans could sink the dozens of bills aimed at climate action.

According to Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, his members may continue their walkout until the last day of the legislative session — June 25 — when they would return to pass “lawful, substantially bipartisan budgets and bills.”

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Monica Samayoa is a reporter with OPB’s Science & Environment unit. Before OPB, Monica was an on-call general assignment reporter at KQED in San Francisco. She also helped produce The California Report and KQED Newsroom. Monica holds a bachelor's degree in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts from San Francisco State University.