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Tree study yields important data

There is no smoking gun — pardon the expression — in the findings of a new study comparing tree species’ propensity to produce flying embers that spread wildfires. But there is fascinating new data that can help researchers predict how fires behave, and help forestry agencies tailor their response to wildfires as well as guide prescribed burning and future forest restoration work.

The most interesting result of a new study detailed in Sunday’s Mail Tribune is that Douglas firs produced slightly more embers than ponderosa pines, and those embers were more than twice as likely to leave char marks when they landed, indicating a greater likelihood of igniting spot fires. That’s important because embers can travel more than a mile ahead of a forest fire. It’s also a major finding because Douglas firs are replacing pines in Southern Oregon forests.

Pines are more drought- and heat-tolerant than firs, and benefit from frequent, low-severity fire. When those fires are suppressed and fuels build up, firs thrive in the shade and replace the pines.

A U.S. Forest Service ecologist was quick to say the study shouldn’t be interpreted as a reason to eradicate Douglas fir, which is more valuable for lumber because of its greater strength and resistance to warping. And mature Douglas firs are quite fire-resistant. But in hotter, drier locations such as ridge tops and south-facing slopes, it can make more sense to thin firs and leave pines when conducting forest restoration projects.

As climate change continues to push temperatures up and moisture down, changing the mix of species in selected locations could help make forests healthier and less prone to spreading fires.

This study, conducted by Oregon State University and the Forest Service, is another piece of the puzzle of how to address wildfire in our region. Like other pieces of information, it doesn’t present a magic solution to the problem, but it’s another tool in the box for forest managers looking for guidance in designing forest restoration projects and planning firefighting strategies.