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Experts: We must change the way we view wildfire and fight it

FILE -- Eagle Creek Fire at the Bridge of the Gods -- File Photo by Tristan Fortsch.

Wildfire season in Oregon is now significantly longer and hotter than in years past, experts say, and the outlook is grim, unless, they say, we change the way we fight fire and view fire in our ecosystem.

From the Chetco Bar Fire near Brookings to the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge and everywhere else in between, more than a half a million acres burned statewide in a matter of a few months this year.

Fire to an extent is environmentally beneficial, helping to thin forests and rejuvenate native habitats. But how much fire is too much?

Oregon Forests Resource Institute Lead Forester Mike Cloughesy says we must moderate fire.

“The fact is that fire is a part of the ecosystem,” Cloughesy told KATU. “We're not going to get rid of it.”

Moderation is an obtainable goal. Yet Cloughesy says it’s one we’re struggling to accomplish because of the way we continue to fight fire. By stopping its spread, through fierce suppression efforts, forests have grown denser than ever before.

“Historically a fire would burn along the ground and burn many, many acres, but not kill many trees,” Cloughesy said. “Where you might've historically had 40 trees per acre, you now have 4,000 trees per acre.”

By removing fire small trees and brush, which would normally burn in low-intensity fires, grow and grow and grow, acting as a ladder between the ground and canopy.

Add terrain and weather, and you get scenes like the Eagle Creek Fire, Oregon State University College of Forestry Professor Dr. John Bailey says.

“We have created a complex problem,” Bailey said. “It will take a complex solution."

One creative approach is underway in Oregon outside the small town of Sisters.

Forest Collaboratives

The Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project (DCFP) -- comprised of 19 community leaders with varying interests, views and values -- works to restore forest landscapes. The group is one of 20 landscape restoration demonstration projects in the nation established by Congress to encourage collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes.

Through active forest management, which includes mechanical thinning and prescribed burns, the collaborative has found forests can become more resilient and resistant to fire and disease.

Mechanical thinning is the strategic removal of some plants and small trees. The objective is to prevent overcrowding and remove volatile ladder fuels.

This summer the project was tested when the fast moving Milli Fire threatened Sisters.

DCFP member and OSU professor Nicole Strong says the fire raced through sections of unmaintained forest, consuming everything in its path. When the fire entered the forest project boundaries, she says, fire behavior changed. It slowed, crept along the forest floor, sparing larger trees. It ultimately failed to reach Sisters.

“It won’t reduce the chance of fire happening,” Strong said. “It changes the behavior of the fire.”

Strong says it also makes fighting the fire safer.

“I see value in this win-win, win-win-win situation,” Bailey said.

But Bailey says a one-size fits-all treatment is not possible.

In Oregon, there are three regional kinds of forests: dry (central and east), wet (west) and mixed (those in southwestern Oregon). Each is shaped by different kinds of fires.

In the dry ponderosa pine forests of central and eastern Oregon, fire historically burned every two to 25 years, but the fires were generally not intense. Large trees typically survived. In wet Douglas fir forests on the west side of the Cascades, fire is much less frequent, once every 200 years. These fires are much more intense because of forest density. Interior southwestern Oregon forests experience some of the dryness of the east-side forests, but with the productivity more akin to the west-side forests. These forests typically burn every 25 to 50 years.

“The Gorge, probably not going to do a mechanical thinning operation,” Bailey said. “But, we could actively prescribe burn in some of those areas to start chipping away at some of the fuel accumulations.”

And applying this treatment to the entire forest is also not practical; however, Bailey says if one-third of forestland received some type of restoration work, it’s possible to mitigate catastrophic fires.

“That’s the point at which the probabilities work out,” Bailey said. "[The fires] would have a much [higher] probability of encountering these areas that we've done treatment. Not only will those acres be in better shape after the fire, they will actually shelter some additional acres down the way.”

Law of the Land

So, why don’t we do more of this type of restoration work?

Simply put: laws, funding and liability limit what agencies can do.

Land, whether it is publicly or privately owned, is governed by different rules.

Laws limit what forest products can be removed and when controlled burning can take place.

Prescribed burns are particularly challenging.

Bailey says they can be expensive because the work needs to be performed by highly trained, certified crews. Liability is another serious concern, and controlled burns face stricter air quality regulations.

“Wildfire smoke is off the books,” Bailey said. “Smoke from prescribed fire is managed and there are expensive fines if it surpasses air quality levels.”

Funding continues to be a challenge.

The Forest Service has spent more than $2 billion battling forest fires around the country this year -- a new record as wildfires blacken the American West in one of the nation’s worst fire seasons. The severe fire season means officials end up borrowing dollars intended for fire prevention to fight fires.

An audit by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office last year concluded that cost-effective prevention options keep suppression costs and wildfire damages low on state-managed lands.

“We’re robbing Mary to pay Paul, and that's the irony of it. It's the short-term decisions versus long-term decisions,” Bailey said. “We need to shift incentives to be in front of these things instead of spending money on suppression.”

Cloughesy says we are at a pivotal time. Public interest and concern is high.

“It has changed and we have recognized it,” Cloughesy said. "That is a real positive story. Every forest plan out there from the federal government to the private government is recognizing the situation with fire… Whether you're pro-habitat, pro-wilderness, whether you’re pro-timber, if it burns up, we all lose.”

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