Resources for Navigating the Confluence of Drought and Wildfire

By Luke Brockman, Oregon State University, Forestry and Natural Resources Extension, Fire Program

Open fields transition to forested hillsides, with two large smoke plumes and dense smoke across the landscape. A firefighting plane crosses in front of the smoke
Drought is an important contributing factor to the dry conditions necessary for wildfire to spread to the levels we see today. Photo: USDA Forest Service under CC BY 2.0

Climate change is driving record high temperatures across the world, and among the effects in the Pacific Northwest is the increased severity of drought, which contributes to conditions already setting the stage for intense wildfires. Projected agricultural impacts of drought include losses in wheat, barley, and Christmas tree production. Additionally, the drought extremity we are experiencing this year correlates with the severity of wildfires, since drought is an important contributing factor to the dry conditions necessary for wildfire to spread to the levels we see today. Consider that this year’s wildfire season has been 19 times worse in terms of acreage burned than last year’s—more than 1 million acres by mid-August and counting in just Oregon and Washington, compared to a mere 52,000 acres at the same time last year––and conditions are likely to worsen in the coming years.

Gathering science-based, real-time information about wildfires burning in your state is important, but can certainly be a challenge when distracting “Breaking News” headlines and a whole host of other less than informative publications shroud your search results. Read on for some examples of how two online resources, drought.gov and the Inciweb site, can get you started with up-to-date information about drought, wildfire, and the effects that the changing climate is having on our neck of the woods.

Last winter, severely below average rainfall and snowpack left Oregon, Washington, and Idaho’s agriculture in a vulnerable position. The combination of a reliance on water from aquifers and the impacts on reservoir water levels suggest that the impacts of these drought conditions will continue to be felt for the next two years and beyond. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Drought Mitigation Center, and the US Department of Agriculture put together a highly useful website with information and resources about the drought in the West. Updated several times monthly during the fire season, the drought.gov website details the status and implications of drought conditions,  links to various tools and maps that help explain where data is coming from, and gives a clear sense of how drought conditions are impacting our environment. For example, in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, wheat harvests this winter are projected to be at least 20% below average, due in part to severely low topsoil moisture.

Side by side maps of the Pacific Northwest, colored for drought levels from none to exceptional drought. The 2021 map shows mostly extreme to exceptional, while 2020 map shows none to abnormally dry
A comparison of the drought classification across the Pacific Northwest for the same week in September of 2020 and 2021 highlights the extreme conditions this fall. Photo: U.S. Drought Monitor

Another valuable source of information is the website Inciweb, an interagency tool created to make wildfire updates and resources easily accessible. Here, you will find a map of the United States with emblems representing the wildfires currently burning. Click on any one of them for an overview of the incident, such as acreage burned, and percent contained. If available, the overview will also contain a link to a page with even more in-depth information from the US Forest Service about the known details of that particular fire, including type of fuels involved, weather, and a “what to know if you’re close to the area burning.” During the Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon, for example, which burned upwards of 400,000 acres, Inciweb was updating fire containment percentage just about every hour, allowing residents in the area to track the situation, helping them determine what actions they might take.

map with pins showing the active fires reported on Inciweb
Inciweb, an interagency tool created to make wildfire updates and resources easily accessible. Screenshot from https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/

An often-overlooked aspect of the drought-wildfire equation is the effect of wildfire on water stored in forests, adding to the feedback loops between fire and water. A large portion of freshwater resources in the Pacific Northwest originates on forested land. Severe wildfires that burn through large swaths of vegetation and forest cover impacts these lands’ ability to hold soil in place and retains ground water. Severe wildfires therefore threaten the integrity of soil, increasing susceptibility to erosion and landslides, which can alter the integrity of watersheds for years.

The connections between drought and wildfire is linked by the common thread of a warming climate. In a time when the effects of climate change are increasingly evident in the Pacific Northwest, examining the information available to us can help us in our own efforts to prepare and adapt to dynamic, and sometimes dire environmental conditions. In addition to the resources pointed out here, local governments have their own websites with updated information and emergency systems in place. For example, Oregon has its Response and Recovery website which allows you to setup notifications for emergency alerts, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game website contains its own map with links to updates and more localized information. There are resources out there to help us stay safe, informed, and prepared!