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Playing to win on fire

Every forest and fire management decision is a gamble. We should play to win.

Some people would like to oversimplify the subject of managing our forests and fire. The truth is that this is a complex issue. Any honest discussion of forests and fire will include words such as likely, most, tend to, except, and trend. Arguments that overly simplify this issue fail to appreciate the complexity of our forests’ relationship with fire and are misleading when it comes to how fires behave on the landscape.

We can only win if we play an honest game.

The reality is that in extreme fire conditions of very high wind and especially low humidity, a fire will burn hot and fast regardless of the condition of the forest or woodland. Those were the conditions we saw in California’s worst fires last year.

Outside of extreme weather events, forest conditions can have a very strong impact on how fires burn. While exceptions can always be found, the consistent trend is that younger forests, including timber plantations, burn more severely than older forests with large trees. Just like starting a campfire with kindling before you throw on the logs — it is the small stuff that burns readily.

No type of forestry “causes” wildfires. But the forest conditions that result from past management practices are likely to impact how fires burn once they arrive. Efforts to implement restoration forestry treatments to improve fire resiliency on federal lands are essential. It is good to see the progress in both Ashland and the Upper Applegate, and the regional planning work by the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative.

However, if the goal is to achieve a more fire-resilient landscape, then our success will be limited by the dense, even-aged tree farms on private, industrial forestland that, under current rules, will never grow old enough to achieve any level of fire resiliency. These highly flammable timber plantations cover vast tracks of Southern Oregon. Some have claimed that private, industrial forests “are managed for fire resiliency,” and that “federal forests should do the same.” I’m not sure how one can describe tree farms in which few, if any, trees are capable of surviving a fire of any intensity as “fire resilient.”

Defenders of the private timber industry continue to double down on their arguments that more aggressive logging and more effective fire suppression are the answers to this crisis.

But wishing that we lived in a landscape where wildfire was avoidable doesn’t make it so.

While aggressive firefighting is critical and will continue to be an important tool in our attempts to reduce the incidence of large wildfires, we should be honest that it was the cutting of large trees and relentless fire suppression, compounded by the effects of climate change, that have created this crisis.

Regardless of our firefighting efforts, either wildfire or controlled burns will sooner or later return to every nook and cranny of our fire-dependent, fire-adapted landscape. The question is: What will the fire encounter when it gets there and what will it leave in its wake?

If the forest is fire-resilient, fire is likely to consume surface fuels and understory trees while sparing the large trees, contributing further to the resiliency of the stand. If the fire encounters young, dense, even-aged trees, the fire will more likely burn at high severity, setting the forest development clock back to zero and pushing the potential for achieving a resilient stand even further into the future.

Playing to win means using a proactive approach. It means protecting the old trees where we still have them. It means using controlled burns at times when smoke will move up and out of our valley. But where we have forests that need help, we should foster their growth through responsible forestry including thinning and fuels reduction treatments. This will give us the best shot at forest and community resilience while providing jobs in the woods and timber to local mills.

There is no silver bullet to fire-proofing the forest. Fire behavior will always be complex. But like a skilled gambler, we should play the numbers so the odds are in our favor. By practicing restoration forestry, including prescribed burning, on public lands and reforming forest practices on private lands, we can tip the odds toward a lower likelihood of high-severity fires across the landscape, and increase the level of resiliency in both our forests and our communities into the future.

Jason Clark is a Talent City councilor and botanist who works in forests across the Northwest.