John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The state's vegetation is as dry as if it was already July.
Visitors this past weekend to Oregon's Bend metropolitan area, population roughly 170,000, might've thought a military plane accidentally dropped a small nuclear device. Wildfires erupted with ferocity around the parched land, prompting mushrooming columns of smoke like this:
Then there was this sunset-bloodied vision, looking like the birth of a new volcano:
The flames are early. The Oregon Department of Forestry picked June 9 as the start of this year's wildfire season, which is three weeks ahead of the historical average. Wildfire's premature appearance will no doubt cause consternation among those who recall that 2013 featured Oregon's worst fire season in six decades. And the mighty drought that's turning vegetation into kale chips bodes large-scale fire potential for 2014, too. A full 60 percent of the West is in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with California and Nevada suffering from severe-or-worse conditions.
"Fire behavior on these fires shows how dry conditions are on the forest and rangelands east of the Cascades," according to InciWeb, which recorded on Monday night about 1,000 personnel fighting two blazes northwest of Bend. "Although it's early June, the large logs and other downed woody debris are as dry as if it was July."
Yesterday, officials at NOAA and the Western Governors' Association renewed an agreement to work on helping communities fight (among other things) drought and forest fires. Being proactive on these issues certainly seems smart, as the kinds of conflagrations charring the West could become more frequent and damaging as the climate warms and development spreads to wooded areas.
Here's another look at the Bend area's ongoing fires, taken on Sunday by NASA's Aqua satellite (red outlines are hot spots). The flames were bad, but weren't awful enough to spoil one couple's wedding ceremony in front of the smoke-belching clouds: