Jul 21, 2023 - Climate

People cause about half of Oregon wildfires

Data: Short, 2022, Spatial wildfire occurrence data for the United States; Map: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

People started about half of the 70,000 wildfires that raged across Oregon over the past three decades, according to a national tally.

Why it matters: With climate change priming conditions for more and bigger wildfires and smoke now regularly blanketing big cities, changing human behavior could make a significant difference against an increasing threat.

Details: The top three human activities causing wildfires in Oregon are debris burns, sparks from equipment (like cars, chainsaws and ATVs) and campfires that aren't completely doused, according to Jessica Prakke, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

  • "All it takes is a hot day with strong winds and that little ember can respark and start a fire," Prakke told Axios.

By the numbers: Human activities that cause a small share of fires nonetheless start some of the most destructive burns.

  • Firecrackers caused about 1.7% of total wildfires between 1992 and 2020, including the devastating 2017 Eagle Creek fire in the Gorge.
  • Power generation is blamed for 1.6% of wildfires — as in the $73 million judgment against PacificCorp for fires in 2020.
  • Arson — which devastated two Southern Oregon towns that year — is the culprit in 3% of wildfires.

Of note: Lightning fires burned more acreage than human-caused fires — almost 75%.

Context: Humans have set more wildfires than lightning for over a century. Changing that is "the million-dollar question," Kristin Babbs, executive director of the nonprofit Keep Oregon Green, tells Axios.

  • The group, which focuses exclusively on preventing human-caused fires, has been around since 1941, but Babbs says it only got "significant funding to tackle this issue" in 2019, when a Smokey Bear license plate was unveiled to help pay for education efforts.

What they're saying: "The phrase 'existential threat' gets overused, but I think that's what we have with wildfire in Oregon," state Sen. Jeff Golden, a Democrat from Ashland who chairs the natural resources committee, told Axios.

What's happening: Two years ago, Oregon lawmakers put $220 million toward overhauling wildfire prevention policies.

  • That included drawing up a risk map, which lawmakers recently clarified cannot be used by insurance companies to determine premium rates.
  • The map is expected to guide rules about building codes and vegetation maintenance — something Golden expects will be controversial.

Flashback: Smokey Bear, who is an Oregon license plate option thanks to his role as America's iconic messenger of forest fire prevention, got something of a makeover almost 10 years ago.

  • But some complain that it didn't go far enough, saying Smokey should explain the nuances of wildfire and forest management in a way that connects with the increasingly diverse generation of people who enjoy the outdoors.

💭 Our thought bubble: Would Oregon's old superhero ranger Rusty Scrapiron or the nasty fire-setting wolf get traction today?

What's next: The Smokey license plates have raised about $3 million for fire prevention ad campaigns, and the bear has visited Timbers games, parades and hot-air balloon festivals.

  • Keep Oregon Green is also developing an app designed to help people burn debris safely.
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