Natural Disasters in Oregon: Risks and How to Prepare

Oregon boasts coastal beauty, varied landscapes, and diverse climates ranging from rainy coasts to high desert peaks. Influenced by the Pacific Ocean and Cascade Mountains, the western region is wetter and milder, while the east is drier before becoming more forested in the far east.

No matter where you live in Oregon, though, you are at risk of natural disasters, such as wildfires, heat waves, winter storms, and more. When these happen, it’s essential to be prepared. 

So what are the most common natural disasters in Oregon, how are they changing, and what can you do to prepare? Whether you’re planning a move to Portland or are looking at apartments in Bend, read on for everything you need to know. 

1. Oregon wildfires

Wildfires are a major natural disaster in Oregon. They can happen throughout the state, but they’re more common on the eastern and western slopes of the Cascades, in the far east, and the southwest. Fires impact homeowners, too; according to data from First Street Foundation, 1.2 million properties (66%) are at risk of being affected by a wildfire in the next 30 years. 

The state’s fire season is typically from June to September, but varies depending on snowpack, rainfall, and temperatures. While historically not a major issue, wildfires have become increasingly destructive and are projected to get worse due to climate change, especially in the eastern and northwestern parts of the state. Also, over 100 years fire suppression, especially in the “dry forests” of Eastern Oregon, has created excessive dry vegetation. In 2020, the Labor Day Wildfires burned more than 1.2 million acres and destroyed 5,000 homes.

Recently, the Federal Government launched a $3 billion, 10-year wildfire prevention plan to help affected states, which compliments Oregon’s $220 million bill to increase fire preparedness. 

Wildfires also increase Oregon’s mountain and hill vulnerability to flooding, landslides, and mudslides. Additionally, fires reduce tree cover, impacting snowpack and exacerbating drought, creating a cyclical pattern.

How to prepare for wildfires in Oregon

If you’re moving to Oregon or already call the state home, preparing for wildfires is essential. Here are some tips to help:

  • Create a defensible space around your property by removing flammable materials and trimming or removing dry vegetation. Oregon offers Defensible Space Assessments administered by local fire agencies across the state, which can help. 
  • Prepare for poor air quality by purchasing an air purifier and installing HEPA air filters on air conditioning units. Air quality is a major concern during fire season, so be prepared. 
  • Install interior and exterior sprinkler systems, if you have access to enough water and drought restrictions don’t prohibit it.
  • Install a generator to keep the power running in case of power outages. 
  • Stay updated on fire weather forecasts and follow all fire restrictions. The Oregon Government offers an interactive map showing all active fires in the state. 
  • Build an emergency kit with essentials and valuable documents.
  • Ensure your insurance adequately covers fire damage, or understand the risks of going uninsured.
  • Work with your community. This is the most successful way to mitigate fire risk in your neighborhood.


2. Oregon heat waves

Oregon is known for its mild weather, but it’s becoming increasingly prone to extreme heat waves. First Street Foundation estimates that 1.8 million properties (66% of the population) are at some level of heat risk.

While the state doesn’t experience very many “dangerous” heat days, temperatures have frequently risen beyond the “Local Hot Day” mark, meaning they were hotter than 98% of days that year. Heat waves can push temperatures even further to well over 100 degrees.

Heat waves in Oregon are particularly dangerous because many people don’t have air conditioning, partially because window ACs are banned in some cities. This was evident during the record-breaking heat wave in June 2021, where temperatures in Portland exceeded 100 degrees for three days in a row, topping out at 116 degrees. Temperatures in Eugene were even hotter. 

Average temperatures are also rising in Oregon, along with most of the US. Oregon’s average temperature has increased by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, and will increase by 5 degrees by 1950 and 8.2 degrees by 2080. 

Oregon is also susceptible to Marine heat waves, which can also cause additional heat-related effects on the land, especially during El Niño years (when the tropical Pacific Ocean is warmer.)

How to prepare for heat waves in Oregon

Heat risk in Oregon can be intense during heat waves, primarily in the summer and early fall. While Eastern Oregon is generally hotter, they can happen anywhere, so it’s essential to be prepared. Here are a few ways to stay cool in extreme heat:

  • Stay updated on forecasts and advisories to prepare for a heatwave. 
  • Prepare a meal plan that doesn’t involve cooking indoors.
  • Stock up on lightweight, protective clothing.
  • Close blinds, shades, and curtains. 
  • Stay hydrated before, during, and after a heat event, especially near the more humid coast.
  • Purchase air conditioning if you can, or find a location that does. 
  • If your home is above 95 degrees and you don’t have AC, don’t use a fan to cool yourself down
  • Install a generator in case the power goes out due to strained utility systems
  • Limit outdoor activities to the early morning and late evening. 
  • Switch from incandescent to LED light bulbs.


3. Oregon flooding

The National Flood Insurance Program identifies all of Oregon’s 36 counties as “flood prone,” and First Street Foundation estimates that 18% of properties are at a severe flood risk. The state is home to numerous large rivers, tall mountains, floodplains, and more, all of which contribute to flooding. 

Oregon usually experiences flooding from October through April, primarily from rainfall, snowmelt, or a combination of the two. Flash flooding and riverine flooding are most common.  Recently, in February 2020, heavy rain fell on top of mountain snow near Pendleton, causing a dangerous flood event that closed Interstate 84 for six days. Urban flooding, particularly in the Portland area, is common as well and is projected to increase with climate change. Coastal areas are also at risk of storm surges, tsunamis, and rising sea levels. 

Rainfall across Oregon, especially west of the Cascades, is predicted to become less frequent but more intense, leading to more frequent flooding events. 

How to prepare for flooding in Oregon

In Oregon, preparing for a flood is essential during the wet winter and spring, especially as mountain snow melts. Here are a few tips to help prepare for flooding in Oregon:

  • Familiarize yourself with flood risk maps for your area to see your potential risks. If you live near the coast, you likely live in a flood zone. 
  • Purchase flood insurance if you’re in a high-risk zone and can afford it. 
  • Keep emergency supplies on hand, including non-perishable food, water, medications, and important documents. 
  • Elevate valuable items in flood-prone areas of your home, and install sandbags or barriers if necessary. 
  • Invest in flood sensors. 
  • Stay tuned to weather forecasts and alerts, and have a communication plan in place with your family. 
  • Understand your local flood and tsunami evacuation routes.
  • Be on the lookout for potential landslides and mudslides. 

snowy road

4. Oregon winter storms

Oregon winters are generally mild, except in the taller mountain ranges and high desert. Most of the state sees some snowfall, though, and storms can create hazardous conditions. Recently, Portland and surrounding areas received nearly a foot of unexpected snow in 24 hours. And in 2021, an ice storm hit western Oregon, causing up to 1.50 inches of ice accumulation.

In Oregon, snowstorms often come from atmospheric rivers hitting the Cascade mountains. They can also come from a combination of cold Canadian paired with low-pressure systems from the Pacific. Snow in Eastern Oregon is much more common because temperatures are generally lower in the winter. 

Winter storms are especially dangerous in Oregon west of the Cascades because cities don’t have the infrastructure to handle them. For example, a storm dropping a foot of snow in Eugene would cause the city to shut down, but in Bend, it would be a fairly normal day. 

As climate change persists, rain and snow will fall less frequently but more intensely, leading to more precipitation in shorter bursts. Whether this is in the form of rain or snow, it will likely lead to more damaging winter storms. 

How to prepare for winter storms in Oregon

Preparing for severe winter weather events is crucial to ensuring your safety and minimizing impact on your home and family. Here are a few tips to help you prepare for winter:

  • Winterize your home by inspecting your roof, clearing gutters, cleaning your chimney, insulating your attic, checking your heating system, and insulating your pipes.
  • If winter weather includes an ice storm, take extra precautions, such as using snow-melting salt or pellets on your walkways and driveway, clearing your gutters, and covering trees to prevent them from falling. 
  • Update your emergency kit to include extra warmth. 
  • Keep a supply of firewood or alternative heating sources in case the power goes out. 
  • Equip your vehicle with chains, extra blankets, a shovel, and emergency supplies. 
  • Stay updated on weather forecasts and make sure you have a reliable method of communication.

ruggest coast

5. Oregon landslides and mudslides 

Landslides pose a significant risk to Oregon homeowners. They are particularly bad near mountains, on the coast, and especially in areas that have been affected by wildfires. Factors such as heavy rainfall, earthquakes, rapid snowmelt, and even construction or excavation can trigger landslides

Mudslides are similar to landslides and can develop in tandem or on their own after heavy rainfall or snowmelt. Importantly, mudslides are generally caused by weather events, as opposed to landslides, which can be caused by naturally shifting rock.

Additionally, many parts of Oregon are at a higher risk of landslides and mudslides due to more severe fires followed by heavier rains, though this phenomenon is more pronounced in California. As Oregon’s fire season gets longer and the rainy season gets shorter but more intense, this is expected to worsen. 

How to prepare for mudslides in Oregon 

The most important part of preparing for a landslide is thinking ahead and familiarizing yourself with the landscape. Importantly, don’t build a home or structure near steep slopes, close to mountain edges, or along natural erosion valleys. Here are some additional tips to help: 

  • Understand your local risks and consult a professional for help. If you live near the coast, the Oregon Coast Range, the Cascades, or the Wallowa Mountains, you’re at a greater risk of mudslides and landslides. 
  • Consult a professional for retrofitting, such as flexible pipe fittings.
  • Plant ground cover on slopes, and build retaining walls around your property. 
  • Build channels or deflection walls to direct mudflow around your home. However, if you build walls that direct flow into a neighbor’s property, you may be liable for damages. 
  • Consider purchasing additional insurance coverage, as standard homeowners insurance policies generally don’t cover damage from landslides or mudslides.
  • Stay alert during periods of heavy rain or seismic activity, and follow all guidance from local authorities.
  • Recognize warning signs, such as new or widening cracks in your home’s structure, bulging ground, or unusual sounds.
  • Review potential risks and historical events with the Oregon State Government’s interactive map. Areas in darker red are more susceptible to landslides. Some cities have individual risk maps as well. 

6. Oregon earthquakes

Earthquakes, although infrequent, are a risk in Oregon. The state is home to thousands of fault lines, many directly underneath cities, and some regions experience dozens of tiny earthquakes every day. Despite the low daily risk, earthquakes have the potential to wreak havoc when they strike, especially in large cities. Compared to California, though, Oregon experiences relatively few earthquakes, with most occurring offshore along the Blanco Transform Fault Zone.

Many Oregonians are aware of the next “Big One,” which is predicted to occur along the 620-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) within the next century. This earthquake will likely be over Magnitude 9 and cause widespread damage in the entire region west of Interstate 5.


Final thoughts on natural disasters in Oregon

If you’re considering moving to Oregon or already call the Beaver State home, make sure you’re prepared for natural disasters. Understanding your risks and adequately preparing are helpful to make the most out of living in Oregon. The National Weather Service and the Oregon state government offer experimental maps that show forecasted and possible risks in any given area, which can help you prepare. 

Lastly, many natural disasters are worsened by climate change. So no matter how you prepare, reducing your carbon footprint and fighting for systemic change are the best long-term solutions. 

This article is for informational purposes only. Individual results may vary. This is not intended as a substitute for the services of a licensed and bonded home services or disaster prevention professional. Always seek expert advice and follow all official guidance before, during, and after a disaster.

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