Hot times usher in early Northwest wildfire season

This web exclusive appeared July 10, 2015 on hcn.org:

Portland, Oregon, has been hot lately. The kind of past-95 degrees hot that glues your clothes to your skin, with multi-day “Excessive Heat Warnings” following on each other’s heels. Several Northwestern communities broke all time heat records late last month and temperatures across the region hovered 10 to 15 degrees above average. A weather map was so garish with red, pink and yellow that one TV meteorologist compared it to a Grateful Dead T-shirt.

So when the long Fourth of July weekend rolled around, some friends and I sought relief in a basin of cold blue lakes high in Washington’s central Cascades. The heat’s signature was everywhere along the Columbia River as we set out on Thursday evening. The grassy hills stepping back from the Gorge’s basalt cliffs were scorched nearly white. As we came around a bend in Highway 97, we saw that they were scorched black as well, where the bright fingers of a grassfire picked their way up through a forest of wind turbines. It took an hour to detour around the blaze. When we finally turned back onto northbound 97, we broke through an endless line of stopped cars and semis awaiting clearance to head south — their headlights stretching across the darkness like a line of flame themselves.

The Junction Fire — which had consumed 2,100 acres by Friday — was one of 1,425 fires that have started in Oregon and Washington so far this season, about double the average for this time of year, says John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. “We’re already seeing fire index values (based on heat, humidity, wind and precipitation) you’d typically see in late August.” More…

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