If you were like me, you’d do just about anything for the rains to come and drench our landscape, extinguish the fires and clear the air. I’ve never been so ready for summer to end. The fires and smoke have severely impacted our communities, our kids and our businesses.
Some fire in forests is inevitable. But as the climate changes, it dries out our forests, extends the fire season, and makes bigger, more intense fires.
And yes, I said the climate is changing. When record-setting heat in the West is matched with record setting hurricanes in the East, it’s pretty clear that climate change is real. We know weather patterns are changing and we know the earth is warming. Globally, 2016 was the hottest year on record, making this year the third record year in a row.
Historically, our forests burned frequently and many forests were more open than they are today. Native Americans intentionally set fires to clear undergrowth. Fires left scars on tree rings help us recreate the history of fire on the landscape. We can see from tree stumps the evidence of a history of fire.
In our region, fires burned every 5-40 years in most forests and grasslands. Now, since so many fires have been put out for over 100 years, trees and brush have grown dense in many areas.
The good news? There are steps we can take to prepare our communities and our landscapes for a warming climate.
Thinning projects successfully decrease the buildup of fuel loads. The Ashland Forest Resiliency (AFR) outside of town is an example. I serve on a technical review team for that project, which has treated about one-third of the watershed area. There is still a lot of controlled burning that needs to take place, but a hike around the watershed gives you an idea of how much has been accomplished.
AFR also provided employment in the woods, producing hundreds of jobs and over 10 million board feet of timber was sent to mills. We could do more projects like AFR in the Rogue Basin to reduce fuels, put people to work, and produce timber. These projects may not stop fire, but they will help protect communities by making it easier for firefighters.
There are many great projects that are working toward reducing fuels, thinning small trees, and getting “prescribed” fire back on the ground in controlled conditions. Some projects, like the Big Pines project in the Highway 62 corridor, will thin younger trees in a ring around massive, old trees. The thinned trees are of commercial value and will be sold.
Too often, political leaders and special interests use fire to move an agenda that is about opening up old-growth forests to more logging. They are already attempting to use this fire season for that end — to push to gut environmental laws and log old-growth forests. This will only make the situation far worse.
Logging big, fire-resilient trees in old forests increases extreme fire behavior. Part of the problem we see today is that we have replaced trees that are hundreds of years old with small trees, often densely planted with timber production in mind. These even-aged small trees burn very hot and spread fire quickly.
Of course even big trees will burn in extreme weather, but on average studies show second-growth forests burn at a higher rate and severity. A 2004 study titled “Patterns of Fire Severity and Forest Conditions in the Western Klamath Mountains, California” found that a third of the landscape was dominated by young, planted forests and that these “tree plantations experienced twice as much severe fire as multi-aged forests.”
With the right management we can help restore the more natural role of fire. Now that we can expect a hotter, drier climate, we need to do a lot more work to protect communities, thin in overly-dense forests, use the byproducts of thinning, and save what remains of our original, ancient forests and trees.
Let’s work toward the common ground we share. Let’s promote more thinning around communities, protect our remaining old-growth forests, and work together on projects that will reduce fire hazards. Now is the time to act.
— Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.