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Clear Skies with more fires around the corner

by Oregon State Senator Dennis Linthicum, September Newsletter 2018

It is widely agreed that we live during a time of unprecedented forest conditions. The forest landscape neither looks nor functions as it did in the past, or at least in our memories.

First, today’s landscape contains more biomass, and thus more fuel, than ever before. The news is continually filled with claims that our forests are dwindling but the evidence says otherwise. In fact, evidence suggest that forest fiber is growing 15% annually.

Second, today’s fuel base is more contiguous and more homogenous. There is little separation between the grass, brush and understory and the upper layers of the forest canopy. Additionally, more people live, work and travel in forested areas. The wildland-urban interface (WUI) is continually being extended amongst the various land-owners and those communities which are more closely connected to forests.

Meanwhile, climatic conditions, whether from man-caused or naturally occurring cyclical variations, have created warmer and drier forestland environments. The overall result appears to be dramatic seasonal variations where fire seasons are longer.

This in turn, will stretch Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) resources and require policy changes that are capable of adapting to a different weather paradigm.

The forest conditions we see today, laden with fuel and naturally occurring forest debris are the result of a century of unbridled growth. These conditions might take decades to repair or mitigate. This means we will quite likely experience many years, like this year, where severe wildfire conditions are ever-present during the summer. I estimate it will take 40 years, or more, before we can establish a new equilibrium in which wildfires pose lesser threats to public health, our forests, human life, and property.

While fires have been historically part of naturally functioning ecosystems in the West, uncharacteristically severe wildfires are now occurring more frequently and with even greater ferocity leaving behind great swaths of devastated landscape. In fact, wildfires in the West have set records for severity in three of the past four years, and in eight of the past ten.

Today, we invest more time, energy, and resources fighting fires than we do proactively reducing wildfire severity and fostering forest resiliency. Foresters often find themselves responding to the next emergency rather than focusing on more strategic activities. Common-sense, existing science and long-proven land management practices tell us there is a better path.

ODF views these extensive fires as a part of a landscape that we created. Meaning, we must respond by adopting both short and long-term practices that will strategically integrate the management of our forests and forest suppression policies.

In discussions with ODF and reviewing their report to the Senate Environment and Natural Resource Committee, the need for local and cross boundary coordination of fire suppression efforts was a major highlight. All local, state and federal agencies must cooperate in more extensive ways to be more effective in fire suppression and management.

ODF’s landscape policy must be continually reassessed as it relates to the department’s existing framework and funding strategies for fire suppression. Thinning, prescribed burns, and strategic management of our forests during shoulder seasons will lessen the probability and severity of the wildfires.

Oddly enough, the public sphere is often filled with proposals claiming that, “our wilderness areas need absolute protection from human encroachment.” Although this might sound good to the modern ear, 50 years of forest service data and common-sense tell us differently.



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