Many people view large wildfires as only destructive. But fires in Oregon’s forests are exactly what these ecosystems need to thrive.
After wildfire, the forest is transformed into the earliest stage of forest growth that allows a completely new fire-adapted community of plants and animals to get their time in the sun. A hike up Grizzly Peak near Ashland or the Biscuit burn area near Cave Junction reveals a young forest remarkably being repopulated by a rich web-of-life that not only thrives in severely burned areas but also requires them to survive. Dead trees anchor the soils preventing erosion, provide habitat for scores of insect-eating bats and birds that keep destructive forest pests in check, and shade new seedlings from intense sunlight. Soil nutrients are recycled as the forest rejuvenates quickly.
Attempting to put out every wildfire in the backcountry disrupts these natural cycles, is unsafe for firefighters and, most importantly, diverts limited funding from protecting homes and communities. Logging to stop forest fires also does not work because large fires are not like campfires — they are mainly driven by extreme weather conditions, not fuels.
The House Natural Resources Committee recently approved H.R. 2936, the “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017,” sponsored by Rep. Westerman of Arkansas. This logging bill would waive environmental safeguards for endangered species, clean water, and old-growth forests with minimal public input. Thus, when a large fire inevitably occurs in fire-dependent forests, it would trigger massive clearcuts up to 50-square miles.
Eliminating environmental safeguards to allow more logging in the backcountry will only make fires more dangerous to people. For instance, using government databases that track millions of acres of forest fires over the past several decades, scientists determined that forests with the most logging in our region burned hottest while wildfires in national parks, wilderness, and roadless areas burned in more natural fire patterns that produced beneficial ecological effects. Community protection efforts would also suffer as resources are diverted to backcountry logging that does nothing to protect homes.
Runaway fire suppression spending also has turned the Forest Service into the “Fire Service,” siphoning public funds from popular outdoor recreation, hunting and wildlife conservation programs. H.R. 2936 would continue this bankrupt policy by throwing more money at an issue that is not going away no matter how hard we try to suppress large fires.
Annual federal suppression expenditures, for example, have skyrocketed from $620 million in the 1990s to over $1 billion (inflation adjusted), while at the same time not reducing the acres burned. Higher spending does not equate with more effective fire fighting as large fires burn under hot, windy, and dry conditions when they are humanly impossible to put out and futile to even try. When we try to stop fires in those conditions, we might as well be throwing money out of air-tanker windows.
There is a better way.
To co-exist with the inevitable occurrence of wildfire, homeowners need to clear flammable vegetation nearest homes, build with fire-resistant materials, and screen over vents. By working from the house outward, instead of from the wildlands inward, the vast majority of homes will survive even the largest fires.
Firefighters also can strategically direct fire suppression efforts at defending towns while working with backcountry fires to maximize ecologically beneficial effects and minimize risks to firefighters and the public.
A good example of this approach is two fires that are burning right now on the Klamath (Island Fire) and Rogue-River National Forests (Chetco Bar). Both are burning in mixed fire intensities that produce diverse wildlife habitat, and are far removed from communities. The Forest Service should be cheered on for using minimal fire suppression in the backcountry as they monitor fire spread and the beneficial ecosystem and natural fuel reduction properties of these fires. The money and resources saved from otherwise inappropriate fire fighting is now available to protect communities should these fires escalate.
Oregon’s congressional delegation now holds critical votes on forest fire legislation. They can best serve Oregonians by supporting fiscally responsible spending that encourages the Forest Service to work more with fires while keeping logging proposals out of fire-funding legislation.
It’s time we recognize fire as a vital, integral part of forest ecosystems of our region, while taking proven measures to prevent loss of life and property, instead of wasting public money on massive clearcuts and unaccountable fire suppression spending.
— Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph. D, chief scientist and president of the Ashland-based Geos Institute, is an award-winning author of more than 200 scientific publications, including co-author/editor of “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.” Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D., is executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology and author of the online publication "Getting Burned: A Taxpayer's Guide to Wildfire Suppression Costs."