Though we’re separated by hundreds of miles from the Northern California wildfires, it feels much closer. We breathed the smoke, we sent our firefighters to help, and nearly everyone has a connection to someone who was directly impacted. There has been a lot of questioning of our own safety in the face of what seemed like an unstoppable force. So how ready are we? What can we do to prepare our community?
We are indeed at a crux in the history of wildfire. There are more homes than ever in susceptible settings, a lack of fire safety codes, and millions of acres of forests in need of thinning and preventive controlled burning. Put climate change on top of that stack and we face a daunting challenge, but not insurmountable. Doubling down on fire suppression would seem to be a likely choice, but history tells us otherwise.
Forests are destined to burn. Some burned every few years and some every few hundred years, but they do eventually burn. We’re surrounded by forests that burned frequently; every 10 years on average our forests experienced fires that cleared undergrowth, cleansed, and recycled essential elements. Here’s where history stands ready to guide; we tried to get rid of frequent fire, and in fact, all fire. It worked for a while, but then it didn’t work, and it’s really not working now more than ever. Fires are bigger and more severe. They poison our skies and threaten our safety and economy.
The Era of Megafires is upon us. But, like the ponderosa pine trees built to survive and resist wildfire, we can persevere and adapt.
First, we have to tolerate intermittent smoke from controlled burns. The science is clear that fuels reduction and controlled burning works to calm severe fire, provide firefighters with safe zones to work, and over decades of widespread use, will help us experience less summer smoke. If smoke from burning inadvertently drifts into town for short periods, we should be ready to use masks, close windows and stay inside temporarily. It's not desirable, but it's necessary.
Next, we need to adapt our homes and landscaping. Wildfire embers can carry for a mile or more from a fire and impact homes, businesses and habitat. We have to embrace firewise landscaping techniques, clean our rooftops and gutters each summer and use fire-resistant building materials in all new construction and remodels. Something as simple as pulling back mulch from within a few feet of your house can keep small flames at bay. In a compact urban community, we’re only as safe as our neighbor. Think of it as wildfire herd immunity; we all protect each other. Talk with your neighbors.
The journey is going to take years and even decades, but what choice do we have? History, science and the unfortunately tragic events to our south and the Oak Knoll Fire in our own community all point the same direction, toward a fire-adapted Ashland.
Please attend the Era of Megafires presentation at SOU Science Hall at 7 p.m. Nov. 8, to learn more. Free tickets are available by clicking on the Era of Megafires link at www.ashlandwatershed.org.
— Chris Chambers is the Forest Division chief for Ashland Fire & Rescue. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. See ashlandfirewise.org and ashlandwatershed.org for more info.