The inconvenient truth about forest fires

By Dominick DellaSala, Timothy Ingalsbee, and Luke Ruediger

July 29, 2018, Medford Mail Tribune

It seems like every time there is a forest fire, the timber industry blames environmentalists for a lack of “active forest management” and presumes that contemporary fires have catastrophic ecological consequences. David Schott’s opinion piece in the Mail Tribune July 22 does just that, using the Klamathon fire as an example.

But this fire began on residential land, not in the backcountry environmentalists seek to protect. It made its largest run on private residential, ranch, and timber land, pushed by strong winds. More roads and logging advocated by Schott will not protect communities nor maintain our natural environment.

The forests of our region are some of the most biologically diverse on the planet. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, fire resets nature’s successional clock from biologically rich old growth to also rich new forest — the circle of life. Fires were historically set by Native Americans to manage culturally important wildlife habitats. 

Forests today have been degraded by widespread clearcutting and “salvage” logging, but instead of calling it what it is — irresponsible logging — industry uses Orwellian doublespeak, claiming “active management” will save the day by reducing fire severity. In fact, scientists (including DellaSala) examined the severity of 1,500 forest fires across the West over a four-decade period to determine if wilderness, roadless areas and national monuments burned more severely than logged areas. They found the opposite — forests with the most logging burned in the highest severities. This is because logging slash is often left strewn across the landscape and then small trees are densely planted — both act like kindling for fires.

Scientists from Oregon State University also found that the 2013 Douglas Fire blew up when it hit a sea of clearcuts near Roseburg. So, instead of using wildfires for political gain, the timber industry needs to take responsibility for the clearcut-firebombs it has left behind over decades of irresponsible logging.

Other scientists have determined that nationwide over 80 percent (about 50 percent in our region) of wildfires are human-caused, with the greatest number of fires in densely populated areas where road densities are highest. Our region has over 30,000 miles of roads, enough to drive to Portland and back 50 times. While firefighters use some roads to protect homes from advancing flames, too many roads in an area result in more human-caused fires.

And climate change, caused mainly by deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels, is now playing an increasing role in governing fire activity since the 1980s. Simply put, the more global warming pollution we pump into the atmosphere, the more acres we expect to burn. Notably, old-growth forests in our region, reduced to a tiny fraction by logging, absorb and store for centuries more atmospheric carbon per acre than even tropical rainforests. Such forests are the lungs of the planet. Protecting them from logging is key to a stable climate, clean drinking water, and critical salmon habitat.

So, what pragmatic, science-based solutions are available?

Instead of logging the older, relatively fire-resistant trees, thinning in tree plantations and prescribed fire will more effectively reduce fire severity and spread. Seasonal road closures and obliteration of failing roads can lower the risk of ignition while restoring streams and reducing sedimentation.

No amount of logging in the backcountry will protect homes. Instead, clearing flammable vegetation within 100 feet or so of homes and building with fire-resistant materials are the most effective means of preventing home ignition. Such proven defensible-space measures need to become as routine as changing the batteries in smoke detectors. Preventing new homes from being built in fire-prone areas also reduces risks to firefighters.

Firefighters do everything possible to protect lives and homes, and we need to protect them in return. Sending firefighters into fast-moving, wind-driven fires, like last year’s Chetco Bar Fire, can be disastrous. There is no “let-burn” policy as claimed by Mr. Schott. Instead, under moderate fire weather conditions, a fire can be actively managed for multiple benefits. There is no cheaper, more effective fuels reduction treatment than fire itself, and by working with advanced science and technology, crews can simultaneously protect communities from fire while reducing fuels and restoring ecosystems with fire. Under extreme fire weather, like our current situation, full suppression is always employed to protect homes and lives, as it should be.

We all want our forests to remain vibrant and our communities to be safe. It’s time for honest dialogue informed by science, instead of spin-doctoring the same old approaches that got us into the situation we are in today.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D, is chief scientist for Geos Institute and co-author and editor of “The ecological importance of mixed severity fires: nature’s phoenix”. Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D., is executive drector of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. Luke Ruediger runs the Siskiyou Field Office of the Klamath Forest Alliance and is program coordinator for the Applegate Neighborhood Network.

 

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