The inconvenient truth about forest 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.