Forest Fire: Friend? Or Foe? We can still make a choice.
About half of Oregon, some 30 million acres, is forestland, including the Willamette Valley. But in the past decade, our winters have had less snow and our summers have grown longer, hotter and drier, turning our lush forests into tinderboxes. In 2021, Gov. Brown has declared drought emergencies in vast swaths of Oregon. No one can forget that Eugene set a 111-degree high-temperature record on Sunday, June 27, the first week of Summer! Tragically last summer, Oregon experienced its most devastating fire season in years, with more than 2,000 wildfires scorching 1.2 million acres, killing at least 11 people and tens of thousands of animals and birds, and destroying thousands of homes. Yet, as this article posts, we are already on track to exceed the total amount of acres burned across the state.
Fire has always been an essential part of Oregon's landscape. Most plants and animals in any forest landscape could not survive without the recycled nutrients and healthy ecosystems that nature’s wildfires produce. Hundreds of Native American tribes used to conduct regular controlled burns throughout the west until European colonists outlawed the practice. Unfortunately, over a century of fire suppression, combined with climate change, has created the perfect storm for the severe fires which rage across the western US each summer. As these patterns continue to intensify, investment in controlled burns and other pre-colonial management techniques will play a crucial role in quelling the West’s devastating fires.
The recent Bootleg fire shows that Indigenous practices could be lifesaving in our fiery future. The Bootleg wildfire was moving rapidly through the state when it came upon the Sycan Marsh Preserve, a 30,000-acre wetland. The region is thick with ponderosa pines and managed by The Nature Conservancy who works with local Klamath Tribes to implement pre-colonial forest management techniques. As part of their Indigenous forest management, the tribes work with researchers to conduct prescribed burns and thin out some younger trees and non-native Douglas Firs.
Thanks to their work, the fire slowed and dimmed as it reached the forest, giving firefighters time to move in and steer the blaze away from a critical research center. The forest not only helped slow the wildfire’s progression, but damage to the forest was also far less severe than in other areas the flames moved through. Some firefighters even reported wildlife seeking refuge on specially designated “green islands” designed to avoid catching fire.
For more than a century, people have removed fire's natural role in our forests by suppressing natural fires or “cool burns.” This has thrown our forests out of balance and caused an abundance of overgrowth. Our dry forests are overgrown with fuel that causes larger, more intense and more severe wildfires. Low-severity fire is defined as a fire in which fewer than 25% of trees are killed. 75% or more trees are killed in a high-severity fire which moves from the ground into the foliage and the tree canopy, destroying even large, historically resilient trees. Catastrophic fires also decimate soil structure and prevent the regrowth and reproduction of native grass and other vegetation, ultimately reducing lush ancient forests to shrublands and grasslands.
Controlled or prescribed burns mimic the naturally occurring, low-severity forest fires which have always restored the natural resilience of the forests. In fact, “cool fires” can char the bark of native oaks and other species in a way that makes their bark stronger. These carefully planned fires clear underbrush and small, fire-intolerant trees, while native fire-tolerant trees survive. Certified fire experts design and manage controlled burns for the spring and fall when conditions are just right. Careful consideration is given to many factors, including weather and wind, ensuring that fire practitioners and nearby communities are safe and protected. Ecological thinning often takes place before a burn to make them safer and more effective.
Some residents have opposed the removal of the mature conifers, such as Douglas Firs, even as these forest types have encroached on native oak woodlands, oak savannas and mixed deciduous forest habitats throughout the Willamette Valley. This encroachment is often because of fire suppression allowing coniferous forests to increase significantly throughout the valley over the past 150 years. Today, oak woodlands and oak savanna habitats represent less than 5% of their historic range.
“Douglas Firs are considered to be an invasive species in the Valley,” explains Friends Executive Director Janelle McCoy. “It’s necessary to thin stands of these fast-growing trees that shade out and starve native trees and understory plants. Douglas Firs are particularly stressed during these hotter summers. They, along with the overabundance of fuel ladders like Armenian blackberries, create conditions for and make up much of the dense understory that cause forests to burn so intensely.”
McCoy added that, “We hope our community and decision-making public agencies appreciate the urgent need for this level of management. If we can put up with a few days of less-than-ideal air quality to prevent the disastrous wildfires from burning out of control, we can save lives, livelihoods and homes.”
Jason Blazar, Friends Stewardship Director, agrees 100%, “By managing, instead of preventing, the natural process of fire on the landscape, we can improve habitats for native plants and animals and reduce the risk of out-of-control wildfires,” says Blazar. “The ecological thinning we design for Buford Park is a vital part of restoring this landscape to it’s a healthier, more natural state. Controlled ecological burns and selective cutting gives ‘breathing room’ to a wider, more diverse range of native plants so they can grow stronger and become more resilient to our rapidly changing climate.”
As a trained landscape ecologist, Blazar understands how essential natural wildfire has been to the health of our forests for thousands of years. “Even today,” Blazar insists, “fire is not the problem. We are the problem.”
Perhaps more than ever, everyone living throughout the Valley needs to focus on preventing forest fires, especially property owners. That’s the urgent message from Amanda Rau, fire specialist with OSU Lane County Extension Service. “Hikers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts must be extra cautious with fire of any kind, or any tool, machine or vehicle that can emit sparks or ignite dry gas. And every property owner has to carefully maintain all physical structures and surrounding landscapes year-round.”
Rau explains that “historically, people in western Oregon have been living in a relatively wet climate where severe fires weren’t a problem. The past few generations have grown complacent about fire prevention. That finally began to change last year.” Rau believes that “some people have taken aggressive action to create defensible space around their properties, but as a community, we still have a long way to go.”
The lesson is clear. Every community and property owner needs to upgrade and maintain their homes, buildings and greenspaces to make them more fire resistant as soon as they possibly can. And not just once a year, but on a year-round basis.
Learn about becoming a Firewise Community, and the resources available to you help prevent wildfire losses around your community by visiting www.firewise.org .
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