Wildfires have burned more than 100 million acres and rangeland since 2000, and most of those fires were "megafires," according to Paul Hessburg, a research landscape ecologist who at an Ashland talk Wednesday defined megafires as wildfires burning more than 100,000 acres.
“Climate modeling shows us that we can expect a doubling or tripling of annual area burned by mid-century,” Hessburg said. “Many of our magical places will burn and we’ll lose many of the options those lands provide in terms of wildlife, clean water, recreation, lumber, or quality of life.”
Hessburg has researched Western landscape and wildfire ecology for 34 years with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, and has been published extensively in leading scientific journals. The increase in large and atypical fires in his home state, Washington, including the Carlton Complex Fire, the largest megafire in state history, burning 256,000 acres and destroying 322 homes, motivated him to take his research public.
His research, coupled with the short documentary-style clips created by North 40 Productions, shaped an invigorating multi-media presentation. The performance flipped between compelling video-clips, accounts of real people, both suffering from wildfires and trying to prevent them, and information that frankly challenges popular belief.
Hessburg said that the “Big Burn” of 1910 which killed 87 people negatively changed the way we view wildfires. The forest service was then tasked with putting out as many wildfires as possible.
Many people believe that forests should be lush, green, and filled with trees. But according to Hessburg, that is a false ideology that produces a breeding ground for large wildfires.
Wildfire is a natural resource that allows forest ecology to thrive, he said, expaining that natural wildfire, without human interaction, burns in small patches, singing the minor greenery and allowing a plethora of natural healthy outcomes such as giving certain plants necessary nutrients, causing landslides that form spawning pools for native fish in waterways and ultimately leaving space for other wildfires to burn without damaging the natural order of the forests.
By suppressing fires and eliminating this natural cycle, the forests are facing an epidemic of too many trees, according to Hessburg. This overcrowding creates “fuel ladders” permitting fire to quickly spread from the smaller vegetation on the ground to the top levels of the tree canopy, consuming everything in its wake and quickly spreading to larger areas. There are other negative side effects of a densely layered forest, he said, such as an influx of insects and spread of disease.
Climate change and the current epidemic of our forests will increase wildfires by two to three times the current amount by 2050, predicted Hessburg.
“Warmer temperatures and larger fires are a reality for the future,” Hessburg said. “If we deal with these issues in a manner consistent with the natural fire regime, we can influence the severity of some of these fires.”
Hessburg said that the amount of homes and buildings that are built in these high-risk areas significantly add to the problem. According to his presentation, the total cost of wildfires is about 24 times higher than the cost of fighting them. In 2015, $2.1 billion was spent fighting wildfires, but the total cost, including repairing what was damaged, was estimated at $50 billion.
Hessburg offered several solutions that communities in our region can take on personal and public levels. However, some of the most imperative solutions are inconsistent with our preconceived notions of wildfire.
“Municipalities are in denial that homes and neighborhoods are going to burn, but without stricter standards there will be much more loss and suffering,” Hessburg said. “There are national WUI (wildland urban-interface) codes available that, if adopted, would go a long way toward helping communities become more fire adapted.”
Through his presentation, he proved prescribed burning to be one of the most beneficial ways of keeping wildfires away from our residential areas. By burning away the fuel ladders, some of the natural patchwork is restored. However, prescribed burning isn’t accepted as it should be, he said.
Many states have a "crooked" system of smoke accounting, in which prescribed burn smoke is considered nuisance smoke and not allowed, according to Hessburg.
Another surprising solution is forest thinning. When combined with prescribed burning, it can be used to remove smaller trees and establish a safer space between remaining larger trees.
Hessburg called the megafire problem a social issue. He said that we have the tools to tame the increasing wildfire problem, but until regulations and the attitude of resisting fire shifts to living cohesively with fire, it will unavoidably intensify.
“Fire and smoke are inevitable on the Western landscape and we need to learn to live with wildfires in a better way,” Hessburg said. “The good news is this: if we’re given the social license to use them, we have tools to control how we receive our fire and smoke.”
The presentation ended with an open discussion led by Hessburg and Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire and Rescue forest division chief. Members of local forest and fire programs also answered the audience’s questions about how this all directly affects Ashland and the Rogue Valley.
“The whole town of Ashland is a wildfire zone,” Chambers said.
Hessburg called Ashland the posterchild of the “Era of Megafires.” He said it’s one of the best communities he’s worked with and advancing in a positive way towards healthy fire and smoke.
“I’ve been on the ground and I’ve flown over it, and you have some serious issues,” Hessburg said. “But it’s something that can be fixed.”
The “Era of Megafires” has been presented to more than 70 cities and reached more than 10,000 people in the last two years.
“We can’t keep putting fires out because they are exceeding our ability to put them out now,” Hessburg said. “We have to learn a new way to live with fire.”
For more information on ways to protect homes and neighborhoods from fire, visit www.firewise.org.
—Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.firstname.lastname@example.org.