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Expert: Forest — and urban — management can curb wildfire effects

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even if the climate is warming, we still don’t have to breathe smoke and watch our forests burn for months. Keep the faith, hire scientists, tighten zoning and building codes and build good backcountry roads.

Above all, keep those fire crews on the job year-round, thinning and burning the understory so flames don’t climb high and “crown.” No one can put those fires out.

That’s the view of Rich Fairbanks of the Applegate, a 32-year veteran with the U.S. Forest Service who has fought wildfire all over the West. He told a packed house Thursday at Northwest Nature Shop that crews need to master fire suppression before, not during the blazes — and that it’s going to take a lot of re-education, political will and money.

“We can fight back. Giving up is not an option,” said Fairbanks, whose talk was sponsored by KS Wild. “Yes, it’s getting warmer, but that means a bunch of vegetation is going to have to move further north or further upslope. We have a lot of people in Oregon who are fed up with the smoke — and we have science-based, viable solutions, so let’s get going on it.”

It’s no secret that the Rogue basin is at a huge disadvantage, with 4.2 million acres of forest, lots of it steeper than 50 percent grade, with short, mild winters, its hottest and driest months happening at the same time, dry lightning in summer — and gobs of underbrush and draping lichen that “explode like a bomb.”

Fire management must change, says Fairbanks. “Right now, we wait for the lightning or careless human to determine the time and place of fire. Then we mobilize hundreds of people, bulldozers and jets, endure weeks of smoke, evacuate lots of people and deal with tragedy.”

None of this is necessary, he says, if we manage fire with science-based zoning, eliminate flammable roofing, focus on “herding” fire away from structures, greatly increase spending on fire research and do much more controlled burning — chip, thin, pile, burn — in spring and fall, when we don’t have inversions, and smoke can rise straight up and dissipate elsewhere.

Because the Rogue Valley has lots of wood-frame housing, most of it near wildlands, he said, the potential exists for a bad urban blaze like those in Redding and Santa Rosa, where wildfires invaded cities. These are enabled by “unstoppable” fire that gets in the crowns of trees — and “57 percent of our landscape here is prone to crown,” hence the vital need of thinning and controlled, off-season burns.

Just because we’re surrounded by plentiful wood doesn’t mean we have to build with it, he said, pointing to the adobe pueblos of Taos, New Mexico, which have stood for 11 centuries and never been burnt out. Zoning, he adds, should exclude single-family homes in the wildlands-urban interface.

The temperatures of the Valley have gone up 2 degrees since record-keeping began and, while that may seem tolerable for humans, it’s devastating and drying for mixed conifer forests, he said.

“We can restore landscaping to low-severity fire, a mellow forest that allows the next fire to be something we can control.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Photo by John DarlingRich Fairbanks