Fire Season 2017; Was it Really “Near Normal”?

October 17, 2017

7pm Tuesday

Today, a drizzly & cool day might seem like a strange time to talk fire weather.  But for the past 3-4 weeks we’ve seen little to no fire activity across the Pacific Northwest.  That’s due to the very wet week back in mid-September putting an early end to most of the big fires.

So how “bad” was the fire season?  One would think that half of the Pacific Northwest woods burned up based on the amount of smoky days and issues with big fires near populated areas.  But Fire Season 2017 was near normal;  acreage burned in Oregon and Washington this year was quite close to the 10 year average.

Take a look at the last 8 years…

Fire NW Summer Stats

The 10 year average is somewhere around 700,000 acres per year so in theory this year would be considered somewhat “normal”.  I would argue it was not for several reasons:

  1. The huge acreage in 2012/2014/2015 came from quite a few very large range fire.  I remember one fire that chewed up 200,000 acres in just a few days in SE Oregon one of those years.
  2. The vast majority of big fires this year were in the Siskiyous & Cascades, not Eastern Oregon.  That includes NE & SE Oregon.  There were very few fires in the Blues & Wallowas.  Didn’t seem to be much fire action in the open range country south and east of Burns either.
  3. Those Cascade fires and their thick smoke came during the peak of the mountain lake recreation season.  Lots of us had to change our plans in August due to closed campgrounds, resorts, trails, & highways.  This was up and down the Cascade Range from Breitenbush all the way to the California border.  I remember one evening several Cascade passes were closed at once.  There was abundant news/weather coverage of these fires throughout the month of August and into the first week of September.  This was the first time in my career I’ve seen so many fires going at once over and west of the Cascade crest.
  4. Two huge fires got lots of media attention; for good reason.  The 190,000 acre Chetco Bar fire threatened southern Oregon coastal cities including Brookings at the end of August.  Then the fireworks-caused Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge spread east/west along a 30 mile stretch during and after Labor Day Weekend.  Of course that fire dropped ash in the Portland metro area on Labor Day; for most of us that was the first time we’d seen ash fall (from a forest fire) in the metro area.

The net effect?

Burned acreage was near normal, but this fire season WAS far more disruptive for the highly populated areas west of the Cascades than in previous years.  In most years the majority of smoke/ash moves east of the Cascades and we don’t see big fires in the Gorge.  We also typically don’t see so many fires in the Cascades at once.

Once again, location is everything!

We did get lucky on two counts this year:

  • NOT MUCH LIGHTNING  We saw far less lightning than normal for a 2nd consecutive year.  For the weather geeks like me it was a boring summer waiting for thunderstorms.  Of course that’s good news for fire starts.
  • NO BIG “ECLIPSE FIRES”  Remember the huge concern leading up to the middle of August was the possibility of numerous human-caused fire starts due to the massive influx of outsiders into our woods & range lands.  It didn’t happen!

Chief Meteorologist Mark Nelsen