Starting Sunday, Portland faces a week of blistering weather and some of the most dangerous fire conditions so far this year. That’s an unwelcome prospect in a city that has recently seen several high-profile blazes in its abandoned buildings, including a fire in a vacant Kmart last month that scattered Frisbee-sized chunks of ash on neighboring parks and lawns.
The National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch for much of the Willamette Valley and warns of excessive heat conditions stretching from Sunday, Aug. 13, through at least Thursday, Aug. 17. David Bishop, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Portland office, says that means it’s more likely than not that temperatures will near or exceed 100 degrees for several consecutive days.
“Starting on Sunday, we’re sitting on about a 75% probability of temperatures being above 95 degrees,” Bishop tells WW. “On Tuesday, it’s 94%.”
Making those conditions more dangerous for people living without air conditioning: hot nights. The city is unlikely to feel much relief from the daytime highs after sundown.
“One of the things that’s a concern in the situation that we’re dealing with is that overnight lows will decrease ever so slowly,” Bishop says. “By the time the sun comes up the next day, you’re already starting warmer than you were 24 hours ago. It’s much easier to go from 70 to 80 rather than 60 to 80. Less distance to travel.”
Conditions are also ripe for fires. That has less to do with heat, Bishop says, than how dry and windy it is. Portland could see wind gusts of 25 miles per hour on Sunday and Monday, according to the latest NWS forecast.
Fire conditions are commonly associated with wildfires, but in an urban setting they create an elevated risk of structural fires. Portland has seen several abandoned buildings go up in flames this year, and continues to debate what to do about an ongoing raft of fires that start in and around tent camps.
“Hot, dry and windy: That applies to all fires,” Bishop says. “A fire is not going to care whether it’s a wildfire or a structure. That applies to fires, period.”
For years, city officials have fretted in documents about the prospect of an urban wildfire in Forest Park or atop Mount Tabor.
Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman Rick Graves says firefighters are preparing multiple responses to potential conflagrations. “With the dry summer, and a wet spring creating a lot of fuel, we’re obviously concerned about the possibility of a fire starting and spreading,” Graves says. “Those are pretty significant conditions to consider. We ask people if they see wisps of smoke in parkland, to call 911.”
Graves says people can take several precautions. “If you’re going to cut your grass,” he says, “elevate the blade on your lawnmower so it doesn’t hit something and create a spark. We’re in the middle of a burn ban, so take heed. You can clean out all the vegetative material from your rain gutters. Those are a few things you can do, either to prevent starting fire or something landing in your home and causing fire.”
For his part, Bishop urges Portlanders to check on vulnerable people to see how they’re faring in the heat. “Keep an eye on your neighbors,” Bishop concluded. “Make sure that people are OK.”