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Editorial: Managing forests to reduce wildfires

Capital Press

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< At left, an area where both thinning and controlled burning took place before the Bootleg Fire. At right, an area where no thinning or controlled burning took place.

In Southern Oregon, the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service and Klamath Tribes set up what became one of the nationís largest outdoor laboratories.

Instead of racks of test tubes, however, this laboratory was populated by thousands of acres of trees.

The experiment: To determine how best to manage forest land to reduce the damage a wildfire causes.

The Nature Conservancy, which owns a vast swath of forest land, thinned one portion, performed controlled burns on another portion and did both on still another. Other portions were left unmanaged to serve as controls that would allow scientists to compare the management practices.

The catalyst was the Bootleg Fire, at 400,000 acres one of the largest wildfires in the West this year.

What the experiment showed was fascinating and provides a giant step in the direction of determining how best to manage forests.

It found that the portion of the forest left unmanaged was incinerated. Feeding on the excess fuels, the fire turned trees into charcoal, and the soil was transformed into a dead zone.

So much for the theory that forests should be left unmanaged.

The sections that were thinned or that had been managed using controlled burns fared much better. The damage was significantly less than that sustained by the unmanaged forest.

But the section on which both thinning and controlled burns had been performed fared best of all.

The evidence clearly shows that thinning and controlled burns together significantly reduce wildfire damage. Most of the remaining trees are alive and will quickly rebound from the fire.

Beyond that, fighting a wildfire in a forest that has been managed is far easier than one where the forest is unmanaged. Towering flames that leaped from crown to crown and laid waste to the forest were replaced by much smaller flames that could be extinguished.

In one instance a whirling fire tornado was knocked to the ground when it blew from an unmanaged forest section to a managed section.

Thereís still lots of work to do. Scientists need to put numbers to the observations and help others come up with follow-up experiments that replicate and expand upon this experiment.

Our hope is the impact of livestock grazing in forests will be included in future experiments. This will determine the value of grazing as a means of reducing the underbrush that feeds wildfires.

We also live in an era of a changing climate. We need to find ways to reduce the size and number of wildfires, which spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It is better to sequester that greenhouse gas in trees or lumber by managing the forests than to release it in catastrophic wildfires.

Thatís something on which reasonable people can agree.




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