Oregon preparing for 2023 fire season during wildfire awareness month

Published: May. 9, 2023 at 5:12 PM PDT
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SALEM Ore. (KPTV) - The Pacific Northwest is still weeks away from the 2023 fire season, but with May being wildfire awareness month, Gov. Tina Kotek and state fire officials warned Oregonians to prepare now for a potentially challenging fire season.

The governor was flanked at a Tuesday morning press conference by top officials from the Department of Emergency Management, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Forestry, and the State Fire Marshal. Kotek said with a wet winter, the start of the fire season will be delayed into summer. Also, the state’s drought is in better shape than it was this time last year. But with NOAA predicting the potential El Nino starting late spring and early summer, this means hot and dry weather for the region. As a result, fire danger increases.

“We’re pushing into May now and we’re still nice and wet and moist,” Mike Shaw, Oregon Department of Forestry’s Chief of Protection told reporters. “With that said, I would urge folks to not be complacent with those conditions because when mother nature turns around and we’re calling for 95-degree temperatures this weekend, the ability of those fuels to dry out and become fire ready occurs very quickly.”

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Michael Berger is a Battalion Chief with the Marion County Fire District. He said his team is already preparing and training for the upcoming fire season. The 2020 Labor Day Fires taught his district a lot, especially about preparing ahead of time.

“We started preparing our troops ahead of time sooner, rather than later because of 2020,” Berger said. “We continue to practice throughout the fire season because you never know when the fires are going to happen whether they’re going to be early in the season, middle of the season, or late in the season.”

Since 2020, the state legislature passed dozens of bills to bolster resources for firefighters and prepare the public for wildfires. One of those was SB 762 which passed in the 2021 regular session. It allowed the Oregon Department of Forestry to expand and add more wildland firefighters in the organization’s districts. The State Fire Marshal said grant money helped keep more than 400 firefighters statewide on call for the fire season. But there are still problems with recruiting volunteers. The governor said the national guard adapted too.

“We did learn from 2020 and having folks in the national guard also prepared, trained, and deployed more easily when needed,” Kotek said. “This is a  full onboard team approach to make sure of the staffing we need. There will always be challenges when we have significant fires across the west.”

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For the public to prepare, Berger said the best thing they can do is create that defensible space around their homes now while it’s still cool and moist out. This includes removing any potential fuels within five feet of a house, cleaning roofs and gutters of dead vegetation, and repairing and loose or missing roof shingles.

“Getting out that information out to the public for defensible space and what a defensible space actually is, really makes a big difference for us, going out, and protecting homes,” Berger said.