Fire Season 2015: It Could Have Been Much Worse!

One month ago the Pacific Northwest fire situation was bleak with almost one million acres burning in Oregon and Washington forests and range lands.  But today, what few fires left are just smoldering and no significant acreage has burned in many days.

We’ve known since mid-spring we could be facing a very bad fire season…consider the setup for the “PERFECT FIRE SEASON”

  1. Moderate to severe drought across much of the region has continued from one to several years
  2. The worst snowpack in MANY decades last winter/spring for much of the region’s mountains.
  3. Temperatures were warmer than normal from winter through early summer; causing what little snowpack remained to melt quickly.  Soils dried out quickly as well.
  4. June was the warmest on record for much of the Pacific Northwest, with a severe heatwave at the end of the month.  Remember the 110+ temps in the Columbia Basin?

By late June, during that big heatwave that went on for about two weeks, I figured it was going to be REALLY BAD in July and August.  But July came and went without any big blowup of fires.  As of late July, acreage burned across the Pacific Northwest was below normal!

What happened?  We were blessed, or lucky, or whatever you want to call it, by two big changes from previous fire season

1. Far less lightning this summer

Take a look at the past 8 years worth of lightning strikes in Oregon and Washington:


So far, less than half what we saw in 2014, and only 25% of the action two summers ago!  And according to the BLM the largest “event” consisted of just 6,400 strikes.  The past two summers we saw peak events in the 21,000 to 38,000 strike range.

2. Cool with rain late August/September

What a change from warmer than normal to a bit cooler than normal in September!  Quite a refreshing month.  We’ve gone through 4 warm/hot Septembers and now it’s payback time.  Note we’ve seen the fewest 80 degree days this month since 2010.


There hasn’t been a ton of rain, but several showery periods east of the Cascades along with snow at mid-month above about 6,000′ in Eastern Oregon has done the trick!

This is how the acreage burned looked as we went through the fire season (thanks to the BLM folks, click for a larger view):


Note the below normal numbers, then the huge jump in August, then leveling out in September.  We’re pretty much done with fire season now.  Of course we can still get fires in October, but not the huge ones we see in the summer.

One more interesting chart, showing the acres burned per week:


You see the weekly numbers jump in mid-late August, then a big crash.  I don’t understand why there is a jump of 150,000 acres only a week or two ago because I don’t remember any big new fires during that period.

In the end, Fire Season 2015 will end up with above normal acreage burned…definitely a big fire season with lots of homes burned.  But almost all the action happened during a one month period in August.  I think it could have been far worse!

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen

40 Responses to Fire Season 2015: It Could Have Been Much Worse!

  1. Paul D says:

    That day with “80” on it disappeared!! Yippee!! Keep ’em low.

  2. High Desert Mat says:

    Go hawks. Should be a crushing of the bears this Sunday.

  3. WEATHERDAN says:

    Just heard the rumble of thunder off to the distant SW. Otherwise mostly cloudy and 65 with a dewpoint of 58. Go Dodgers. Peace.

  4. PurpleHaze says:

    Are official sunshine hours recorded in the United States as in many other places of the world?

    In international weather forums I hear them being talked about all the time as if it’s a big deal and am surprised on USA ones nobody mentions it.

  5. WEATHERDAN says:

    Wow several things to talk about today. Nick Allard is out at KGW, and by his choice. He is taking the morning job at KIRO 7 in Seattle to be closer to his family. Heard rumbles of thunder last night around 1:00 AM. But I saw no lightning. We had a very brief .11 this morning. Now we are entering a warmer and drier period. For the model riders GFS PDX 16 day meteogram has but .01 over the next 2+ weeks. And the CPC has us with elevated chances of warmer and drier than normal the next two weeks. So our Autumnal rainy season has not started yet. Nice weekend on tap. Should be close to 80 Sunday through Tuesday with a good chance of morning fog. Good viewing conditions for the supermoon eclipse on Sunday evening. Interesting the CPC has us down for another hot season in 2016. Kind of far away to make that prediction but we will see. The last time we had a supermoon eclipse was 1982. Just before a big El Nino, hmmm. Go Dodgers. Peace.

  6. Tyler Mode in Battle Ground says:

    Day 3 in Alaska…Whittier all the way down to Valdez…an amazing drive along the Glenn and Richardson Highways…the fall colors were out in full force, especially with the cloudy skies saturating the colors.

  7. Tyler Mode in Battle Ground says:

    0.19″ at my place in Battle Ground.

  8. W7ENK says:

    That was some impressive rainfall in Downtown Portland!

    Just in time for my morning coffee break, and of course I didn’t bring a coat because my ride in was warm…

  9. W7ENK says:

    Nice little active thunderstorm moving toward the valley right now, been tracking this way from offshore of Southern Oregon all night.

    Live view:

    It probably won’t cross the Coast Range.

    Heard a report this morning of lightning with thunder over Salem around midnight, but I’m not necessarily buying it. No one else has said a word, and I have several friends that live down that way. No one here mentioned anything, either.

  10. Joshua says:

    Well, at least we’re going to get some rain with this band about to hit Portland. Won’t last too long, and then bone dry for a while.

  11. Not too much rain out of this last system here: I measured a third of an inch in total, and it looks like this will be the last for September 2015. Overall, it will be a somewhat drier month than normal. Oh well, everything looks a lot greener outside than a few weeks ago, that’s for sure.

  12. Jason Hougak says:

    If I remember right, most of the early season thunderstorms brought rainfall.

  13. leer` Geddy says:

    There’s always next summer for disaster with CPC forecasting another ridiculous hot summer for 2016, could it be a record breaking season again most likely either way our climate has become the new Arizona and I fear there’s no hope for a return to normal.

  14. How do we know for sure that it won’t come back in October, at least south and east of Portland? These places haven’t had that much rainfall and a warm/dry offshore pattern ought to be able to easily re-kindle the fire danger.

  15. Boydo3 N. Albany says:

    Parts of the West were burning big time but Oregon didn’t fare too bad, considering.
    Of course the national news made it sound like we were burning alive out here! And when we had the big intrusion of smoke into the Valley last month it began to feel that way.
    There continues to be debate about the benefits vs the drawbacks of wildfire, but having seen first hand how much improved the forage is in the grasslands are after fire, I’m a bit on the side of letting it burn.

    • Mark Nelsen says:

      I am too. Think of how much healthier that entire southern half of Mt. Adams will be in a few years with all fresh trees growing after the 3 big fires over the past decade.

    • BlazerFan32 says:

      Very true Mark, look what happened to Yellowstone Park after the 1988 fires there that summer. A few years later the Aspen trees were thriving and the population of beavers then boomed as well. Then they introduced the wolves back in the 1990’s with just a small pack. Now the population of them has spread even outside of the park and it is also now easier to run into female wolves with pups more so than it used to be.

  16. timbers15 says:

    Glad that this fire season wasn’t aa bad as could have been. But still if this is the trend we are in big trouble in the future. I hope that the big leaders of the world will come with a plan soon. At least the cold season is coming and we hope for more rain and snow.

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