I have never been happier to see blue skies. I’m hoping the searing heat and smoke are behind us. I’m cherishing the crisp morning air that comes with the turning of the seasons.
As we breathe in the fresh fall air, it may feel that the fires are out. In actuality, many fires are still smoldering. As the fires linger, I think about the enormous impact this fire season had on our community. From those fighting fire on the front lines to recreation outfitters and tourist-dependent businesses, I can't think of anyone who wasn't impacted.
Long-term climate forecasts are predicting warmer and drier summers in the Pacific Northwest, so we can expect more big fire seasons. Fortunately, there is much work that we can do to prepare our communities and our forests for future fires. (Check out the last Wild Side for my recommendations on how we move forward on that front.)
For now, the question I'm pondering is: How exactly did this year’s fires affect the great forests of the Klamath-Siskiyou?
This fall coworkers and I will head out and check out the impacts of the local fires. If you are interested, you can gather maps and find out what areas are still closed for safety on the website inciweb.nwcg.gov. There you will find a catalog of every fire and a description of the fire-fighting effort.
This year there will be no shortage of fires to explore. I plan to look at the fires in the Applegate Valley first, but there is also the High Cascades Fires near Crater Lake, the Horse Prairie Fire on industrial tree farms north of Grants Pass, and the Chetco Bar Fire near the Oregon Coast.
It is hard to get a real sense of what fire has done to the landscape from the evening news. Often the cameras zoom in on the most sensational shots of sky-high flames. If there is human tragedy or lost buildings, that is justifiably the focus. We often hear that fires have completely decimated forests; the forest is gone, wiped out, obliterated. While it's true that fire can radically alter forests, nearly every forest you've ever set foot in was born of fire.
Fire is a natural process, and a necessary one. Many plants won’t survive without fire, and forests have co-evolved with fire for millennia. While many experts say that we are experiencing more fire as a result of climate change, it will be interesting to see the impacts of the 2017 fire season.
Fires burn at a mix of severity, especially here in this region. Sometimes the low severity fires skip entire areas of a forest, or only lightly burn the needles and twigs, known as duff, on the forest floor.
In other forests, the moderate severity fire might burn a few trees, and maybe kill all the small shrubs and climb up even a few large trees searing the treetops.
Yet, under the right conditions, forest fire will burn in high severity, racing from treetop to treetop and start the forest anew. These post fire areas become important habitat for wildflowers and pollinators.
In the Rogue Valley, the history of fire is of some mixture of these effects. So when you hear about a 10,000-acre fire, maybe only a few thousand acres are high severity. When you get on the ground, you will still see a lot of green forest, some brown, and some black.
But just as predictable as the fall rains, politicians are now claiming they can stop fire through aggressive logging. What many of them don’t say is that they want unregulated logging of our remaining old-growth forests. This is not only dishonest, it is misguided. In fact, the type of logging being promoted by our own Congressman Greg Walden would make matters worse.
We should have discussions about fuels reduction and protecting communities from fire, but gutting safeguards for clean water, fish and wildlife, and removing the public from having a voice in their public lands is not going to stop fires. In fact, cutting old forests and replacing them with more tree plantations will likely make fires more severe, just as the Horse Prairie fire ripped through industrial tree plantations.
One of my favorite hikes is Grizzly Peak Trail. In 2002 a fire, some of it high severity, reshaped the forest on that hiking trail. If you want to see what fire looks like 10 years later, it is a great place to start.
— 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.