Pacific Northwest forests have always experienced fires. With global warming, wildfires are more frequent, more intense, and bigger than they were prior to European settlement. The past 100 years of fire suppression and intensive land management in the American West sit in stark contrast to traditional, Indigenous forest management practices that use fire as a tool to influence the landscape. Today, millions of acres of forests are made up of many unnatural, large areas of smaller, densely-packed trees. And the Wildland Urban Interface, where we are rapidly building more homes, power lines, and roads, adds to the growing risk of fires. We contributed to these conditions, and we are faced with some hard, political decisions now as we pursue necessary recovery, adaptation, and mitigation.
How we got here
We have high-graded most of our forests in the West—taken the best—the biggest, oldest, most valuable trees with the thickest, most fire-resistant bark, leaving the smaller, less fire-resistant trees in the dry forests. In the process, we have changed the species composition—away from thick-barked, fire-adapted species like Ponderosa Pine and towards more fire-prone vegetation. And in the heavily managed, wetter forests, the dominant harvest practice has been to leave few if any trees at all. Thus the even-aged, single-species plantations that now dominate the landscape are more vulnerable to fire and disease than the forests of the past.
The drier forests of the Interior West were adapted to more frequent, natural fires that occurred every 10 to 20 years or so before we began such intensive management. The regular frequency of smaller fires—ones that tend to burn unevenly and leave patches of forest untouched—contrasts with the historic fire intervals in the wet forests west of the Cascade mountains, where fire naturally occurred much less often over centuries. While much less frequent, the fires that did occur in faster-growing forests on the Westside were more likely to be “stand-replacing,” burning much larger areas of forest than the smaller, more frequent fires in the drier forests where there wasn’t as much fuel. The Westside forests, dominated by the great Douglas fir trees, are arguably among the best carbon capturing natural landscapes on Earth, and provide many other public benefits, such as habitat to protect and support biodiversity, recreational areas, and water resources. They also provide prodigious amounts of fiber for timber harvest, and considerable biomass which serves as fuel for fires when they occur.
This year, wildfires have burned 1 million acres in Oregon, 3.5 million in California, and 814,000 acres in Washington.
The introduction of intensive, commercial grazing, logging, mining, and development led to a “zero tolerance” policy for fires in the early 1900’s that sought to completely eliminate fire from the landscape. Smokey Bear popularized this policy, and we have been extinguishing the vast majority of fires ever since. With Smokey Bear’s success, the natural fire cycle has been interrupted. Regular fires that would normally keep the fuel load at bay have been suppressed. Dr. Tom Spies, renowned forest ecologist, Emeritus Scientist with the Forest Service’s PNW Research Station, and professor at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, found that many Oregon forests are significantly more dense than they were 100 years ago. His research suggests tree density is double or triple that of historic conditions. These are mostly the smaller, less valuable trees that can act as “fire ladders” and create conditions ripe for intense fires.
With a changing climate and these human-caused forest conditions, wildfires will get larger, hotter and more frequent. We will see wetter rainy seasons, drier, hotter, longer summers, less rain and snow, and more lightning and strong winds during the dry seasons. Smoky summers will likely become more common.
Today foresters face an anomalous situation, yet we know the solutions well: Put people to work, invest in our forests and our communities, look to Indigenous peoples who have successfully managed forests with fire for millennia.
We need to reframe our relationship to fires and to the smoke they cause and use prescribed burns–fires that are deliberately set and managed to burn ground slash and ladder fuels, providing space and nutrients for the remaining trees, and lowering the risk of disastrous fires—rather than fighting those agreed to by broad public-private collaboratives. We must not react with overly aggressive salvage and harvest projects.
The agencies that regulate air quality need to make accommodations to their rules for these much-needed, controlled regular fires.
We need to reconsider putting power lines in forests, which are often the source of ignition of forest fires and rethink the location of homes in forests as they significantly complicate prescribed burns and fire-fighting efforts. We need to reprioritize emergency response resources so that Indigenous peoples’ sacred places are not consistently burned while second homes are protected.
We need to transition active forest management to climate-smart practices. And we need to leave the areas that haven’t been touched by humans for the past 100 years alone—there aren’t many left, and they can provide a much-needed example of natural fire resistance in forests.
But the reflexive response is to see this situation as a polarized debate between those who want to cut timber and those who don’t—that is only a very small part of this story which most of us moved on from years ago.
Eighty percent of Oregon and Washington residents depend on forests for their drinking water.
Climate-smart forestry is management of forests with a long-term view of the forest and an appreciation for the array of economic, social, and ecological benefits forests offer to communities. With climate-smart forestry, we can cut some trees to save others. We can use thinning to remove ladder fuels and densely packed bunches of smaller trees. Prescribed burns can be reintroduced to mimic lightning-caused fires and other disturbances like windstorms.
Innovative foresters throughout our region are already demonstrating this approach: Many Native American Tribes, families who often have cross-generational ties to the land, communities working to provide water, recreation, and habitat, some publicly owned forests, progressive forest management companies, public-private Forest Collaboratives, many land trusts, and others. For example, EFM is a forest investment management company with more than 15 years of experience and 100,000 acres under management in Washington, Oregon, and California. EFM’s climate-smart forestry approach includes thinning dense stands, enhancing species diversity, favoring fire-resistant species, and creating shaded fuel breaks to slow the spread of fire should it occur. In addition to reducing fire risk, these practices also contribute to more ecologically, financially, and culturally valuable forests.
In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service reported that, for the first time, 50 percent of their budget would be spent on fire suppression.
While practices on the ground won’t stop a catastrophic fire, these forest managers, using prescribed fires, coordinating fire detection and response, reducing human-caused sources of ignition, reducing home building in fire-prone areas, can decrease the severity and frequency of large forest fires.
What’s more, a real commitment to this work could have incredible ripple effects beyond mitigating fire risk.
Eighty percent of Oregon and Washington residents depend on forests for their drinking water. Watershed restoration has been shown to create 19 to 24 high quality jobs for every $1 million invested. And restoration work can generate five times the number of jobs as the oil and gas industry provides. The next questions naturally become: Which drinking watersheds are in greatest need of restoration and protection? How much wood of what species and size could these hotspots produce over the next 20 to 30 years? How many mills could be expanded or built to accommodate this new production?
We can begin to answer these questions and make meaningful progress toward restoration, but history has proven that the best laid plans can be stymied by policy inaction and underfunding. To-date, one million acres in Oregon, 3.5 million in California, and 814,000 acres in Washington have burned this year. Meanwhile, where are Smokey’s friends to help put out these fires? We stopped adequately funding them.
Twenty years after the passage of the Northwest Forest Plan, U.S. Forest Service staffing was 60 percent of what it was in 1992. In 2015, the agency reported that, for the first time, 50 percent of their budget would be spent on fire suppression, along with a 39 percent reduction in non-fire personnel, further limiting forest restoration and management activities. Despite recent legislation to balance forest management needs with rising wildfire costs, the proposed 2021 budget calls for $129 million in cuts to funding to the agency’s State and Private Forestry program—a critical service that helps facilitate coordinated efforts across federal, state, state and private lands.
These challenges are not only limited to federal forest management: This past spring, the Oregon Legislature failed to act on recommendations from the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response that would have addressed several key areas of concern including the costs of responding to, preventing, and mitigating the effects of fire on vulnerable communities.
Living with fire
Some Western communities have been living with the realities of wildfire for years, but the magnitude of this season is spreading the impacts further and opening more eyes to our reality and urgency of political action.
Millions of people now live near high fire-risk forests, increasing the likelihood that wildfire response includes expensive structural protection and the chances for accidental fire starts. Seventy to 90 percent of fires are caused by humans.
In partnership with our region’s diverse leaders, we must address the fact that these kinds of disasters have the most dire impacts on communities already most affected by policy inaction. These same communities are also least likely to recover from the long-term financial stress following natural disasters. Whatever policy we put in place, justice for those on the frontlines of climate change must be at the center.
The smoke from these fires saturated our entire region. At my home in Spokane, Wash., we are recovering from more than a week of hazardous air, preparing for predicted thunderstorms, working to help our neighbors, colleagues and friends on the Colville Reservation, in Malden, Omak, and nearby Idaho. In breathing smoke from four states and the province of British Columbia, we are reminded that we face a common problem and must work together to address it.