Portland is a city known for its beautiful scenery and lush wilderness. It’s a city known as much for what there is to do in the city as what there is to do around the city with access to the vast wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. However, with the great beauty of Portland also comes great danger, the northwest is known for some of the most ferocious wildfires ever seen in the United States.
With Spring on the doorstep, the wildfire season is just starting to heat up. While it’s important to stay safe and informed during this time, you still want to get out there to experience what the region has to offer. The surrounding areas are filled with dense forests and stunning scenery, making Portland one of the most beautiful places in the country.
To make sure that you can make the most of Portland, whether you live here or are just visiting it’s important to know how to stay safe and what to do if a wildfire threatens you or your family. In this blog post, we will discuss the dangers of wildfires and provide tips on how to stay safe.
How often are there fires around or near Portland?
There are wildfires in Portland, Oregon every year. The most common time for them to start is in the late summer months. Across the state of Oregon, there are several hundred wildfires of varying sizes each year, in 2021 the state had over 1000 in total (Wikipedia)
In the 2020 year, between September and November extreme conditions saw more than 40 large wildfires rage during this period (Travel Portland). These 40 fires were in addition to countless smaller wildfires. All told, the large wildfires alone burned more than 1,000,000 acres of land and destroyed countless homes and businesses. This number is typical for Portland and if you visit during summer you need to be aware that there is always a wildfire risk. Climate scientists report the number of high fire danger days in the pacific northwest is increasing each year, so the risk will only continue to increase (States at Risk).
What is the risk of wildfires in Portland?
According to the US Forest Service, an average of 12 people die in wildfires each year across the United States. However, the number of people dying in wildfires has been increasing in recent years. In 2018, 106 people died in wildfires across the country. The majority of these deaths occurred in California, where 85 people died.
Near Portland, the number of fatalities varies from year to year and some years there have been none. However, much like the rest of the country, the number of deaths has been rapidly increasing in recent years. One of the worst large wildfires to occur recently was the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, which killed 49 people.
With 40-60 fires per year, concentrated generally from May through to September, it’s important to be alert to make sure you don’t become a statistic. So what is the risk of a wildfire occurring in Portland during any given time?
The risk is highest during the summer months when the weather is dry and hot and during some winter months, the risk is zero, when heavy rain and snowfall ensure conditions are insufficient for combustion. However, at any time of year, there are a number of other factors that can contribute to the risk of a wildfire. These include:
The type of vegetation
Fires can only burn when the vegetation is dry enough to combust, and favors low dry shrubs and hardwood trees. However, any vegetation is generally flammable once dry and after a fire is underway it can be hot enough to dry out the fuel around it and become self-feeding.
Terrain that is inaccessible to firefighters increases the danger of a fire once it has commenced as it is much harder to put out, this is also the type of terrain where it is much harder to see a fire until it has taken hold. In addition, fires move most rapidly uphill, or across shallow valleys if the wind is with them.
The amount of fuel available
The Pacific Northwest, in general, is a very fuel-rich environment for fires, clearing exercises are conducted regularly and fire breaks are cut, but unfortunately, the amount of wildfire fuel is inherent to the beauty of the area.
The wind speed and direction
Wind can be one of the main factors in how severe a wildfire is and how long it lasts. Fires fanned by strong winds can move at hundreds of miles an hour. Winds can pick up embers and spread them ahead of the fire, starting ‘spot fires’ which can encircle homes and businesses without warning.
All of these factors play a major role in the risk. Keeping this in mind will help you stay safe, try to never go uphill when running from a fire. Avoid dry vegetation or densely wooded areas. Also, avoid being downwind of a wildfire as this is where the fire is going next.
How is wildfire risk measured?
Wildfire risk is typically measured by the combination of two factors: the likelihood of a fire starting, and the potential damage that would be caused if a fire did start.
The likelihood of a fire starting is usually measured by considering things like the type of vegetation present, the weather conditions, and ignition sources. The potential damage that would be caused by a fire is usually measured by considering things like the amount of flammable material present, wind speed and direction, and population density.
The best way to stay on top of the wildfire risk is to pay attention to local radio and news sources. You can also check out Oregon Wildfire Response & Recover and keep an eye out for weather alerts.
What to do if there is a wildfire while you are there
The first thing to do in the event of a wildfire is to listen to the directions of emergency services. Please note that we are not fire experts, nor can we predict how a fire near you might behave. Any information presented here is general in nature and you should seek official resources in the event of an emergency.
Information about wildfires and current fire-related emergencies in Portland can be found on the Travel Portland fire page.
Information about current evacuation orders, current weather warnings and how to prepare is available at the Oregon Wildfire Response and Recovery website.
The following general information may help, in the event, any information here conflicts with official, government or expert sources you should follow the official instructions.
- Smoke is the main killer in most fires.
- Smoke and air pollution can cause serious health concerns even for otherwise healthy persons. However, particular care should be taken for young children, the elderly, and those with respiratory conditions to get them away from the fire. If you have access to breathing apparatus, these can help; if not, a damp cloth can be used to reduce the immediate effects of smoke and dust particles while seeking safety.
- Do not travel towards the fire, not even to ‘see how it is going’.
- Do not travel across the path of the fire.
- Do not go back for personal belongings.
- Do not travel downwind of a fire.
- Do not travel uphill from a fire.
- Be aware fires can travel faster than you can drive, particularly on winding mountain roads, seek the nearest evacuation and/or rally point.
Always follow the directions of emergency service personnel, even if their advice contradicts this general information.
How to prepare for wildfires
The best way to prepare for a wildfire is to be prepared. Visit local resources before your visit, make sure you know the local emergency broadcast channels, and have a radio with you. Always you’re your cellphone fully charged and take a two-way radio if you have access to one.
Never light a fire on your own or if you are unsure that conditions are safe to do so. Also, never light a fire outside of an approved area, regardless of the weather or risk conditions.
Before you travel, make sure you know where the local rally and evacuation points are. In addition, try to be familiar with the area and ideally have a paper map. Smoke can block cell phone and GPS signals, preventing you from finding alternate routes away from a fire.
Be aware that personal fire prevention tools such as fire blankets and fire extinguishers will have minimal effect in a wildfire and should not be considered as security measures.
Visiting Portland at any time of year could face a wildfire risk, although the risk is greatest during spring and summer. The risk also becomes progressively higher towards the end of summer when more potential fuel sources have been dried out. However, despite the potential risks, Portland city is not at direct risk of wildfires most of the time, though the city can be affected by smoke.
If you want to visit Portland or its surroundings, if you keep abreast of the latest information using publicly available resources, such as those provided in this post you can be aware of most emergencies before they affect you. If there is a fire in the area when you are planning to travel to Portland, consult state advice and consider canceling your trip. A lost airfare or reservation is replaceable, your life isn’t.
Keep in mind that with appropriate care, most risks can be greatly minimized. There is no need to avoid Portland entirely just because of the regional fire risk, you can stay in the city or visit the region during a period of reduced risk (such as winter or early spring). It is well worth visiting Portland and experiencing everything this magnificent area has to offer.