The Northwest is Burning: Fires Take Their Toll in Drought-Plagued States

Oregon and Washington are having their most active wildfire season ever, while California braces for the worst.

Photo Credit: Sergi Votit/Shutterstock

The epic drought in the West is beginning to take its toll on grasslands and forests in the Pacific Northwest. Over the past week, dozens of wildfires have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres and forced thousands of residents from their homes.

Just a week into the three-month fire season in Washington and Oregon, the total area of scorched ground is already higher than in any full year over at least a decade.

More than 3,500 people — including National Guard troops and firefighters from across the nation -- have been battling the fires.

While other areas in the drought-plagued West have seen relatively few fires, the Pacific Northwest states have been a tinderbox. Some 14,000 square miles of land have been scorched, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the nation’s total wildfire losses since January.

The biggest fire, called the Carlton Complex, is the merger of three wildfires. It has burned some 400 square miles and is yet to be contained. Thousands of residents have been evacuated from about 150 structures in the sparsely populated area it's affecting. Canada’s Northwest Territories have also been severely impacted by wildfires. 

Satellite imagery drives home the message of the fires’ severity. Vast plumes of smoke are moving south and east across the nation, spewing ash particulates as far away as New England.

After a mild, damp spring, much of the Pacific Northwest has been experiencing a heat wave this summer, with temperatures reaching past 100 degrees.  But it was the lightning and high winds associated with thunderstorms that have breathed the fires to life, according to fire officials.

Fires in high-elevation timberlines, where there are few homes and people, are being allowed to burn as firefighters concentrate on the ones that are more threatening to civilization.

Worrisome is California, which is very susceptible to wildfires. The entire state has been under drought conditions for months, with most areas under “exceptional” or “extreme” drought conditions. It’s the first time in 15 years that all of California has been under drought conditions.

So far, the state's firefighting agency, Cal Fire, has responded to nearly 3,000 wildfires, which is a huge increase in the average number of fires at this point in the year. Most the fires have been well contained so far.

One of the largest and most stubborn wildfires, called the Bully Fire, has destroyed eight homes and threatened dozens more in rural Shasta County. The blaze is 88% contained after destroying 12,661 acres.

Earlier hopes that the drought would break soon have been tempered. The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center downplayed the help that El Niño may bring to the drought-plagued West in its monthly report of Pacific Ocean weather patterns. While the Center is still projecting that sea surface temperatures will be warmer than usual—a phenomenon known as El Niño—it is now saying that the effect will be only "weak to moderate."

The forecast strength of the El Niño was downgraded because Pacific Ocean temperatures near the International Date Line have not continued to rise since earlier this year when they were well above average. While strong El Niño weat​h​er patterns usually create more rain in the U.S. West, weaker El Niños typically don't bring more rains to the region.

The Center said that there is a 70% chance El Niño will develop by the end of the summer, and an 80% chance that one will develop by the early winter.

Cliff Weathers is a former AlterNet senior editor who writes on the environment and consumer issues. He was previously a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy and Raw Story among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers.