Natural Disasters in Oregon: What Is the Risk?

Four million Oregon residents have experienced natural disasters firsthand or had to evacuate, yet many are unaware of the various types of natural disasters that can occur in the state.

This article covers Oregon’s natural disasters, the worst events since 2000, and how residents can prepare.

Is Oregon At Risk of Natural Disasters?

Compared to the rest of the United States, Oregon has a medium risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, Oregon has had 93 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 19 were declared major disasters. 

Oregon is also frequently hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, more than 30 separate $1-billion events have affected Oregon. Most of these were wildfires and droughts.

Worst Natural Disasters in Oregon By Cost (Since 2000)

  1. Summer-Fall 2018 Western Wildfires: $28.3 billion
  2. February 2021 Winter Storm and Cold Wave: $25.6 billion
  3. 2022 Drought and Heat Wave: $22.2 billion
  4. Summer-Fall 2017 Western Wildfires: $22 billion
  5. Fall 2020 Western Wildfires: $18.9 billion

Worst Natural Disasters in Oregon By Deaths (Since 2000)

  1. February 2021 Winter Storm and Cold Wave: 262 deaths
  2. 2021 Drought and Heat Wave: 229 deaths
  3. Spring-Fall 2000 Drought and Heat Wave: 140 deaths
  4. 2022 Drought and Heat Wave: 136 deaths
  5. Summer-Fall 2018 Western Wildfires: 106 deaths

*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.

Most Common Natural Disasters in Oregon

1. Wildfires

Oregon is one of the most at-risk states in the country for wildfires. Since 2000, Oregon has been affected by 14 billion-dollar wildfires and has had to declare disaster over 70 times because of fires.

Oregon has thousands of wildfires yearly, and the fires tend to be very large. Large amounts of forest with lots of dry undergrowth cover the state. When ignited, fires rapidly spread and are hard to contain.

Oregon Wildfire Stats

  • Acres burned in 2021: 828,777
  • Number of fires in 2021: 2,202
  • Percentage of state covered by forests: 48%
  • Number of properties currently at risk of wildfire: 911,742

Which Areas of Oregon Are Most At-Risk for Wildfires?

There are over 1.6 million housing units in Oregon. Many of these are located in high-risk areas for wildfires. Approximately 9% of all Oregon properties are at high or extremely high risk for wildfires, and another 20% are at moderate risk.

Because of climate change, the risk of wildfires in Oregon is growing. By 2050, an estimated 61% of all properties in the state will be at risk of wildfire.

The Oregon counties with the highest concentration of properties at risk are:

  • Wheeler
  • Josephine
  • Union
  • Grant
  • Wallowa

There are also thousands of properties at risk in major cities in Oregon, including 13 thousand properties in Jackson and 21 thousand in Deschutes.

Largest Wildfire in Oregon’s Recent History

Oregon has had dozens of major wildfires since 2000, including many which burned more than 100,000 acres. The worst was the Long Draw Fire in 2012. This fire burned more than 557,000 acres before it was extinguished. It took a month to put out. Even though it mainly affected rural areas of the state, smoke from the wildfire affected air quality throughout the region.

2. Earthquakes

Oregon doesn’t have high-magnitude earthquakes as frequently as California. However, it is high risk for catastrophic megaquakes. The state is located in the Cascadian Subduction Zone. This 680-mile stretch runs from Northern California to British Columbia and is capable of earthquakes 30x more potent than the San Andreas Fault. These quakes could reach or even exceed magnitude 9.0.

The Cascadian Subduction Zone extends about 70-100 miles into the Pacific Coast. It is part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire” – where more than 90% of all earthquakes occur. These earthquakes can produce devastating tsunamis. Many major ports, businesses, and coastal populations in Oregon are at risk.

The last 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred at the Cascadian Subduction Zone in 1700. The quake caused the coastline to drop several feet and caused a tsunami so large that it caused destruction in Japan. More recently, Oregon experienced a magnitude 6.0 quake in 1993.

3. Flooding

Compared to the USA as a whole, Oregon is very high risk for flooding. Approximately 13.9% of all properties are currently at substantial risk of floods. Due to climate change, this number is expected to increase to 14.8% by 2050.

Flooding is most common in winter and spring when rains and snowmelt cause flash floods. These flash floods are often deadly and can completely destroy homes. 

Oregon Flood Stats

  • 268,000 properties at substantial risk in 2020
  • 398,500 properties at risk by 2050
  • 284,600 properties at substantial risk by 2050
  • 69,100 properties at almost certain risk by 2050
  • 7,400 FEMA flood damage claims since 2000

Which Areas of Oregon Are Most At-Risk to Flooding?

Floods can occur in all parts of Oregon, but some areas of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of Oregon with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations). 

  • Milton-Freewater: 90%
  • Baker City: 86%
  • La Grande: 75%
  • Keizer: 57%
  • Junction City: 55%
  • Sisters: 54%
  • Seaside: 51%
  • Prineville: 51%
  • Eugene: 48%
  • Mount Hood Village: 48%

In addition to these areas, there are many major cities and towns in Oregon where thousands of properties are at risk. This includes nearly 49,000 properties in Portland, over 10,600 properties in Salem, and almost 8,500 in Springfield.

4. Winter Storms

Winters in Oregon tend to be very mild. The state only has an average of 11 inches of snowfall per year, much of which occurs in the Cascade Mountains. However, Oregon does occasionally have winter storms.  

These winter storms can cause widespread power outages. Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur when residents improperly use generators. After the February 2021 winter storm in Oregon, for example, four people died because of CO poisoning. Vehicle accidents also occur, mainly because most residents are not used to driving in snowy or icy conditions.

5. Heat Waves and Droughts

Oregon doesn’t have many days of what the National Weather Service calls “dangerous” heat: days where the heat index is 103F. However, that doesn’t mean Oregon isn’t at risk of high temperatures. Over the next few decades, Oregon’s “Local Hot Days” risk is expected to increase. 

Local Hot Days are defined as “Days at or above the 98th percentile temperature, or the temperature than an area could expect to see on the hottest 7 days of the year.” Essentially, Local Hot Days factor in what temperatures a local population is used to experiencing.  

Since many people in Oregon don’t have air conditioning, increased temperatures – even when they aren’t considered “dangerous” – can have severe implications. Health problems like strokes increase, and heat-related deaths are more likely to occur. 

Because Oregon is so unused to and unprepared for high temperatures, the 2021 Western North America heat wave hit the state particularly hard. Portland reached temperatures of 116F or more for five consecutive days. Over 60 people died in the city, and nearly 100 died from heat-related medical issues throughout the state.

All parts of Oregon are expected to see more Local Hot Days over the next few decades. However, Curry County is particularly at risk. In 2053, Curry County can expect to see 20 consecutive days of temperatures at or above 79.5℉.

Droughts often accompany heat waves. Droughts can have a substantial economic impact on Oregon’s agricultural communities and also increase the already-high risk of wildfires.

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