Changing climate is factor for fire plans

Jackson, Josephine county officials prepare for more frequent, destructive fires

You won't see a squadron of air tankers poised to scramble out of the Medford airport or vast swaths clear-cut from public forestlands to protect rural communities against wildfires come next summer.

But that doesn't mean agencies working on public forests in Jackson and Josephine counties aren't preparing for the chance of bigger and more destructive wildfires if climate-change predictions hold true. "There won't be instant sweeping changes like six tankers based in Medford, but climate change is one of our long-range topics when we talk about management now," said Brian Ballou, a veteran firefighter who is spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District that blankets the two counties.

The climate report

The first Oregon Climate Assessment Report released this week by Oregon State University examined the potential social, physical and biological responses to an Oregon climate predicted to increase in average temperature by up to 1 degree Fahrenheit per decade through this century.

Long-range climate predictions, based on projected global greenhouse gas emissions, say the state will face increased wildfire risk, a rise in summer water shortages and more extreme weather in general.

Written by some 70 authors from universities, government agencies and other groups, the report was produced by OSU's Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. The report was modeled after similar studies produced in California and Washington state.

It says wildfire is projected to increase in all forest types in the coming decades because of warmer, drier summers and an increase in vegetation.

"Large fires could become more common in Western Oregon forests," it noted.

It also projected that by 2050 Cascade snow packs will be less than half of what they were in the 20th century. In addition, irrigation demands will increase as the climate warms, it said. However, warmer weather may also create longer growing seasons and greater yields for some crops and opportunities for new crops, it added.

OSU's 400-plus page report is available at www.occri.net/ocar.

— Paul Fattig

The Medford tanker base normally has one tanker assigned to it during the summer.

"We're looking at climate change from the standpoint of long-term fire management and forest management," Ballou said. "We're working with foresters, landowners and land managers to help them make some different choices when it comes to planting certain tree species."

The goal is to plant or encourage the growth of native trees that tolerate drought and are fire resistant, he said. ODF foresters provide silviculture expertise to private forest landowners and provides wildfire protection for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's lands, as well as other public and private lands.

"Climate change is being looked at from a number of different fronts," he said, adding, "and we will still be looking at fire as a management tool."

When and where fire will be employed to reduce forest fuels while preserving big trees depends on the future climate, he observed.

"The whole issue of climate change is important — we are definitely following it very closely," said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the BLM's Medford district.

"One of the goals we have over the next several years is to treat our forests so they can improve their natural fire resiliency," he added, referring to thinning brush and younger trees in overgrown forests.

However, Whittington is quick to observe that studies show the southwestern Oregon region is an area where future weather patterns could be hot and dry or warm and moist.

"Talking to scientists we have here and looking at the research, there is no real consensus between the different models and conclusions," he said. "Some studies say we will have more clouds and more rain, others say it will be warmer and drier."

Still, the prudent option is to be prepared by improving forest health now, he said.

"In the short term, we need to improve fire resiliency," he said of current dry summers that already create extreme fire conditions. "But the long-term climate change and how we respond to that is also an issue.

"If we do the short-term fire resiliency, that has to help the long-term climate-change issue," he added. "We know we have a problem now. The goal is to reduce the parameters of that problem."

The U.S. Forest Service is also preparing for the eventuality that climate-change predictions will come true, said Tom Knappenberger, spokesman for the agency in the Pacific Northwest.

"We are a big carbon sink for the nation," he said of national forests.

Like other agencies, the Forest Service is looking at ways to steadily improve forest health, including making them more resilient to potential climate change, he said. That includes establishing a "roadmap" to respond to a changing climate, he added.

"It's a long trail," Knappenberger said of preparing national forests for climate change. "But our mission is to care for these acres, and climate change puts those landscapes at risk. We will adapt and change as the climate changes."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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