Climate change or global warming might be what’s driving an increase in the frequency and severity of catastrophic wildfires in Eastern Oregon.
At a renewable energy workshop Thursday in Baker City, Randy Joseph, a Sumpter Valley resident who owns Lime Wind LLC and Baker County’s only wind farm, promoted the development of various renewable energy sources to reduce carbon emissions.
Those emissions — which result from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity — increase the greenhouse effect that most scientists believe is driving climate change.
Joseph said he became involved with renewable energy in the early 2000s, and brought up the idea to the Baker County Commission, which ended up pursuing a plan to install a hydroelectric plant at Mason Dam, along the Powder River between Baker City and Sumpter.
Joseph said that around 2004 he decided he wanted to install a wind farm on his 500-acre ranch in the Sumpter area.
“At the time the state was promoting what they referred to as a community wind type of development,” he said. “It was what was used in Germany and Denmark.”
After more than two years of studies at his ranch, though, it was determined there was not enough wind on his ranch for a wind farm.
“So I went down to Huntington where the wind is,” Joseph said. “I went through the development process with the BLM and built (six wind turbines).”
Two other wind farms are under construction in the Huntington area, which is near Interstate 84 about 50 miles southeast of Baker City.
Before he talked more about various types of renewable energy sources, Joseph showed workshop participants a slideshow outlining why global warming is happening and how it is contributing to more severe wildfires in Eastern Oregon, including last year’s record-setting 104,000-acre Cornet/Windy Ridge fire south and east of Baker City.
Much of the information in the slideshow was from research by Louisa Evers, a BLM climate scientist.
Joseph said the greenhouse effect is a result of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbing the heat of sunlight radiated from the Earth’s surface.
“It’s probably a little bit more complicated than that,” he said.
Joseph showed a slide of a famous graph that shows how carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have increased from 320 ppm (parts per million) in 1960 to over 400 ppm in 2016.
Joseph said climate models that scientists are creating are actually much more conservative than what is actually being experienced.
“We have gone there much quicker than anyone has imagined,” he said.
The next few slides represented temperature and precipitation levels over the past 20 years in Eastern Oregon.
The slides showed that temperatures are increasing while precipitation is staying about the same — but that precipitation is not resulting in a deeper snowpack due to the higher temperatures.
More slides showed maps that represented significant declines in snowpack over the years. He explained that seasonal precipitation shifts have resulted in slightly more spring rains that cause increased vegetation growth.
That is one factor that contributes to more intense wildfires due to an abundance of dry vegetation later in the year which fuels the fires. Those seasonal shifts also have resulted in drier fall weather which further increases the potential of fires.
“It means that fire season is getting longer,” Joseph said. “I think that’s of great concern to all of us in this community.”
The warming climate also contributes to soil moisture drying out sooner because of less snowpack.
Joseph said all of these factors contribute to a change in fire behavior.
And not a good change.
Joseph said Rick Wagner, a stewardship forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry, told him that all of the fire indicators — fuel moisture, humidity, temperature and more — last year were off the charts. Joseph said Wagner had never seen that before in the many years he has fought fires.
The next several slides corroborated what Joseph was saying. They were maps that indicated severe fire events in Eastern Oregon have been increasing over the past several years. They also showed projections going as far forward as the year 2100. They showed a dramatic increase in large wildfires occurring in the near and long term future.
“Climate is a global problem ... My feeling is we need to do whatever we can,” Joseph said. “It’s not something we can ignore.”
He then outlined the different renewable energy opportunities available that have the potential to slow carbon emissions.
“One of simplest and cheapest things we can do is actually heat our water (with the sun),” Joseph said as he showed a slide that pictured a solar hot water heating system on the roof of a house.
Solar panels can also be installed on a home to generate electricity.
He said people often complain about the cost of solar power, but they never talk about the cost of it in conjunction with the cost of carbon dioxide.
Joseph said if people aren’t going to do that, “There’s no sense even talking cost with me. It’s a moot issue because you have to look at the cost of carbon dioxide.”
He said renewable energy is completely unnecessary unless you talk about what carbon is costing us.
Joseph said a state law passed this year — Senate Bill 1547 — has a section that allows community solar programs. It will allow people to buy into solar farms rather than have them on their roof. He said the rules will be written by next year, but they don’t apply in areas with cooperative electric utilities, such as OTEC.
Joseph pointed out on a map that Union County has a lot of areas where wind power is feasible due to the consistency of wind.
The county has one operating wind farm — Elkhorn Valley between Union and North Powder — which started operating in 2007 and includes 61 wind turbines.
Baker County is much more limited in terms of wind power potential.
There is a small area to the east of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, the Table Rock area Joseph’s wind farm several miles north of Huntington, and areas south of Huntington.
There are other areas that have sufficient wind, but the terrain makes wind power development cost prohibitive, or there are issues relating to sage grouse habitat that would prevent development.