These answers are from a forum this week featuring Oregon State University professors with expertise related to fires. Questions were edited.
What's your biggest concern this fire season?
Forestry professor John Bailey: “These kinds of fire seasons where we have a cooler, wetter spring, it really drives the fuel development [for example, grasses]. July and August are forecasted to be a little warmer than normal, and so the fuel and warmth toward the end of the fire season, that's what has most forecasters worried at this point.”
What’s our status going into fire season?
Associate professor & Oregon state climatologist Larry O’Neill: “About 52 percent of the state is still in moderate or worse drought conditions, even though we had really great snowpack and decent precipitation in parts of the state. One of the things that is most concerning, in both a drought perspective and a wildfire perspective, is the soil. Moisture estimates across a lot of the state are still historically dry.”
What’s different going into this year from last year?
O’Neill: “Last spring was the wettest in our state history from April, May, and June. And it was also cooler than normal. [This spring] is starting off much warmer, and a little or quite a lot drier, than last year.”
Professor Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute:
“I think there's a natural tendency to think about 'How does this year compare with the last year or two?' [But] if one looks at the longer term trend, over the past couple decades wildfires are becoming more frequent. They're becoming larger, and that's across the west. It’s becoming warmer; it's effectively becoming drier. Even if precipitation increases, water availability is decreasing over the long term.”