Hot weather is drying out grass, other natural fuels for wildfires

As a summer heat wave sits over the Pacific Northwest, grass, shrubs, and other natural fuels are drying out fast in the Cascades, creating a risk for wildfires
Published: Jul. 27, 2022 at 9:51 PM PDT
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GOVERNMENT CAMP, Ore. (KPTV) - As a summer heat wave sits over the Pacific Northwest, grass, shrubs, and other natural fuels are drying out fast in the Cascades, creating a risk for wildfires.

Even with a rainy spring, the Oregon Department of Forest said that doesn’t mean the region is skipping a fire season. It’s just delayed. So with warm, dry, weather still likely over the next few weeks, fire danger levels will only increase.

Judah Larson has lived in Rhododendron for 20 years. Each summer, as the temperatures rise, the possibility of a wildfire barreling through his home is always in the back of his mind.

“We’ve gotten pretty lucky, very lucky up here,” Larson said. “There are old pictures you can look at, this whole hillside was completely blackened back in the 30s.”

Each summer, he and his neighbors prepare to defend themselves and their homes.

“Most people this time of year pull all the debris away from the houses,” Larson said. “You rake, and you get it down to soil level near your house.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry said this week’s heat wave has increased the drying out of fuels, like tall grass that can build a small fire into a large inferno like what that state saw in 2020. Jessica Prakke, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said it’s only going to get drier before the rainy season returns.

“So in hotter conditions, you know, the smallest spark once again can just catch really easily and can spread very easily,” Prakke said.

Derek Gasperini, another spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said once the dry season begins, all those fuels don’t stay wet for long.

“Growing up in the mid-Willamette Valley among grass seed farmers, hauling 2530 tons of hay a year for a small livestock farm, it can happen awful fast,” Gasperini said.

Prakke said, preparing for a wildfire with defensible space is key. On Wednesday, firefighters with Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue were able to quickly save a house from burning. Officials said the fire started in an outside yard debris container and quickly spread.

“If you have, a pile of yard debris, you want to be able to dispose of that appropriately,” Prakke said. “So fill your yard debris bin and get it away from what could potentially endanger your home.”

There are also things you can do, like clean out gutters and remove wood stored under your porch. Also, if you would like to see what the wildfire risk levels are in your neighborhood, the Oregon Department of Forestry has a website that shows your community. Most communities in the Cascades are in extreme and high-risk zones.

However, Prakke said the wildfire risk map is different than wildfire danger levels. Gasperini said the wildfire risk map shows the overall risk of a large wildfire burning through a community. The data to determine that changes every three to five years. When it comes to wildfire danger levels, that’s a short-term warning for the likelihood of a large wildfire erupting. The data to determine wildfire danger levels can change on a daily basis.

Larson, also a former wildland firefighter said his community knows the risks of living where they do and his neighbors take the necessary precautions to stay safe. Because any spark can be devastating.

“I mean if this starts burning, we got 300-foot tall trees, and if those catch on fire, you basically have to run,” Larson said.