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Wildfires Summer 2020

In the Western United States, wildfires raged as heatwaves hit in late summer. Over 5 million acres across 5 states have burned.

The year 2020 has been riddled with fear and anxiety due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For the western United States, a double crisis began in late summer of 2020: devastating wildfires. At least 10 wildfires began within the span of several days, leading to mass evacuations, torching millions of acres, and creating the worst air quality in the world.

In late August and early September, heat waves with temperatures in the triple digits spread throughout much of the western U.S., including California, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington. When paired with drought and high winds, the conditions in these states were perfect for the rapid spread of wildfire.

As of September 15, 2020, almost 5 million acres had been burned across 10 states in the western U.S. In California, Oregon, and Washington alone, 35 people lost their lives to the fires. Tens of thousands were under emergency evacuation orders as fires ripped through residential areas. People displaced by the fires often fled to temporary shelters with limited capacity and special protocols in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In California, 5,412 structures were damaged or destroyed. In Oregon, several mountain towns, including Detroit and Phoenix, were leveled due to the speed and heat of the flames.


At least one fire in Oregon, the Beachie Creek Fire, was started by multiple small fires sparked by downed power lines. The small fires merged to create a megafire, defined as a fire that burns over 100,000 acres. As a preventative measure, Portland General Electric and Pacific Power cut electricity to tens of thousands of residents in areas surrounding the Beachie Creek and other Oregon wildfires.


The air quality along the entire west coast of the U.S. was some of the worst in the world. The Air Quality Index (AQI) ranked the air quality in Portland, OR, at over 300 AQI for much of the second week of September. As of Sept. 15, air quality in the area had not improved, and towns further south of Portland were still experiencing levels of over 300 AQI. Air quality throughout CA, OR, and WA was deemed “very unhealthy” to “hazardous,” with residents warned to stay inside. Such poor air quality can cause healthy adults to experience burning or watering eyes, coughing, and sore throat; those with preexisting conditions may experience an asthma attack, heart attack, or stroke.


During 2020, officials expect wildfires to last into November. Many fires in Oregon are predicted to be fully contained by the end of October; they may burn for two months or more. As the climate continues to warm, wildfire season is expected to lengthen, with smoke exposure periods extending as well.

Prescient’s innovative wildfire risk assessment tool will help the electric utility industry to modernize to the lowest possible wildfire risk, and prevent fires from being started by sparking power lines. Contact us to learn more.  

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