Fire Ecology

Beyond smoke and mirrors

By Dominick DellaSala; Originally published in the Ashland Daily Tidings, August 29, 2018

Just about every day someone has a quick-fix logging “solution” and scapegoat to blame for the growing wildfire problem caused by years of climate neglect and poor planning. Meanwhile, smoke and fires are damaging our local economy, forcing home evacuations and causing tragic loss of life. Everyone wants to do something. So, what do we know about wildfires and is there a simple solution, given fires are not going away, no matter how hard we try?

Climate change plus industrial logging plus human-caused fire ignitions equal fire increases

Since the 1980s, wildfire acres have been increasing, although much fewer acres burn now compared to historic times. The main culprit — dinosaur carbon used to run our cars, homes and factories is conspiring climatically with carbon released from deforestation. The consequence — the hotter/drier it gets, the more fires we see.

In Florida, hurricanes are intensifying. In the Midwest, flooding is becoming more extreme. In Alaska, native villages are being displaced by melting permafrost. Every year we break heat records and see more heat-related deaths.

In terms of wildfires, clearcuts contribute to rapid fire spread and firefighter risks. This was the situation during the Oregon Gulch fire east of the Greensprings and the Douglas fire complex near Roseburg. Numerous studies document this irrefutable fact.

Millions of homes have been built in grassy, shrubby and wooded areas. Who wouldn’t want a log cabin with fantastic views? But where fire once burned unimpeded, it now rages through housing developments built in unsafe environments. Unfortunately, towns like Santa Rosa and Redding know this stark reality. The densest population areas also are where the most human-caused fires occur. More roads and development only exacerbate the problem.

Can “active management” save the day?

The latest buzz word used by industry and elected officials is “active management.” But what does it really mean and does it work?

Thinning can reduce fire severity in some cases, but only if small trees are removed, fire weather cooperates, it’s followed with prescribed burning, and a wildfire occurs during the very short period (10-20 years) when flammable vegetation is lowest.

In extreme fire-weather (high temperatures and winds, low fuel moisture), fire rages through thinned and unthinned forests. More of this is expected under climate change.

“Salvage” logging after wildfire also increases fire hazard by leaving behind flammable slash, damaging soils, ruining fish runs, and destroying the forest rebirthing process. Planting trees in dense rows after logging sets up the next big burn.

A five-point solution

  • Keep human-released carbon out of the atmosphere. If we are going to avoid runaway climate change, we need to keep carbon in the ground by switching to clean, renewable energy and protecting older carbon-dense forests.
  • Build fire-safe homes — every single home at high risk of wildfire needs to be retrofitted with sprinklers, have vents and gutters screened, and clear vegetation within 100 feet of structures where possible. Don’t even think about a wood-shake roof!
  • Design communities for fire safety — we need to stop building in high-risk areas and accept some seasonal road closures to reduce unnatural fire ignitions.
  • Stop creating fire-bomb plantations and thin existing ones — judicious thinning of small trees and prescribed fire can help reduce fire risks, but only if the climate cooperates.
  • Vote for elected officials who understand the very real and immediate threat of climate change and are willing to address it.

A science-based vision offers a way forward and chance to coexist with wildfires that shape the ecology of our magnificent region. Getting there means doing things differently and ending the blame game.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., chief scientist for the Geos Institute, is the author of over 200 publications.

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