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Fire management in southwestern Oregon

The following is a proposal for changes in how we deal with fire in southwestern Oregon.

Stop reacting to wildfire ignitions and take the initiative to actively manage fire.

Fuel treatments must greatly increase. Controlled burn, chip, masticate, thin-pile-burn, all of it.

Staff both fire suppression and fuels treatment with well-trained, well-paid crews, with meteorologists and other specialists.

Burn understories in mixed conifer forests. It has worked for millennia. Do it on days when unstable atmospheric conditions lift the smoke away. Do it in strategic locations that will actually meet wildfire where it is most likely to occur. Do it to restore forest resilience. But do it.

Zoning must be based on science.

Building codes must be based on science.

Funding for fire research must be stable and plentiful. We need answers.

Why is this necessary?

At its most basic, forests are composed of structure and function. Our forests were once structured so that fires burned often, but at very low intensity. Surface fuels were sparse, most of the trees were thick-barked and well-spaced. There is a need to restore the function that provided this structure to our forests.

Since 1911, we have been suppressing fires to the maximum extent possible. For the most part that meant suppressing fires with an average flame length of less than 6 feet. Flame length is a rough proxy for fire severity. In mixed conifer forests, fires of less than 6-foot average flame length are considered low and moderate fire severity. These fires, especially those of 1- or 2-foot flame length, are the kind of fires that reduce fuel loading without killing all of the large overstory trees. So, to some extent we have been putting out fires that would have maintained the forest and prevented high severity fires. We have been putting out the gentle fires that would have prevented the house-eating crown fires we see today.

The average daily maximum in July is now two degrees warmer than the average for the 106 years of records at Medford. This translates into longer more severe fire seasons. It is getting warmer. We not only need to restore fire as a function, we need to deal with the effects of climate change.

We have endured 6- to 8-week periods of dense smoke in southwest Oregon, so dense that doctors warned us to stay inside. We lost over 85 human lives in one Northern California wildfire last year. Clearly government is not performing a basic function of security for its citizens. In the short term we can use controlled burning and mechanical treatments to change fuel profiles. According to the fire modelers, treatments of as little as 10% of the landscape in strategic locations have been shown effective at reducing overall potential wildfire severity. Medium term, we need zoning and building codes for a warming West. Long term we need to restore fire to our forests in a way that reduces the losses of people and property and restores the forest ecosystem.

How to accomplish?

We need more and better trained and paid fire use crews. Crews that work suppression in summer, but in spring, late fall, even winter in some areas they work managing fuels and doing controlled burning. Crews must be available to burn on every good (unstable atmosphere) air day.

We need better weather forecasting and spot weather forecasting. We need to use every single one of those unstable days, when smoke will rise to the upper atmosphere.

We need zoning to encourage fire safe structures in certain areas.

We need building codes that reduce home ignitability in a wildfire.

Finally, perhaps most important, we need to deal with climate change. We need to get ready for severe fire weather in warming conditions.

Rich Fairbanks has held various positions in the Forest Service fire organization, including interagency hotshot crew supervisor, suppression crew foreman, division supervisor and others. He was interdisciplinary team leader for the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project. He studied fire behavior as a graduate student, was a certified silviculturist and holds a master’s degree in planning. He owns some mixed conifer forest in the Applegate.