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Stop pointing fingers and start protecting our communities

My brother lost his home to the wildfire that devastated Talent. A friend from my wedding party lost his home in the wildfires, too.

For years, I worked in remote, mountainous terrain fighting wildfires. Today, I research wildfire risk management at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. I have seen and felt large fires up close. I have run from fire, alongside those under my command. The risks were clear to us, and we accepted those risks. The current wildfires highlight a different risk; a risk that continues to grow. The risk of wildfires close to home.

You hear plenty of blame for these wildfires. Climate change. Forest management. Lack of forest management. Utility companies. Homes built in forests. Arsonists. California. The president. We are at a moment where instead of placing blame for these wildfires, we need to take steps to adapt to them and help protect communities and landscapes throughout the western United States.

For more than 50 years, scientists have warned of the impending consequences of human-induced climate change. We no longer have the luxury of deferring these consequences to the future. We are living it.

This year, the western U.S. has already experienced its worst fire season since federal and state efforts to suppress wildfires started about 100 years ago, and we are not finished yet. California’s worst fire weather typically arrives in the coming months.

We were all surprised by their ferocity of these wildfire, our inability to do something about them, and by a smoke-filled valley with no refuge, not even in our homes. But should we have been? Research has documented these types of fires in this forest type. Newspaper stories from the 1800s describe their occurrence. How come we chose not to be prepared? Why did we let our guard down, despite the extreme fire weather forecasts? Is there a way to break our short sightedness, to learn from the past, and to listen to the scientific evidence? I think so.

Have climate-driven increases in fire extent reached our wet forests, like those in western Oregon, too? It is difficult to say, but if not now it may only be a matter of time. Not long ago, I remember sitting on the fire line hearing the old firefighters refer to western Oregon forests as “asbestos forests,” meaning they were inherently resistant to burning, at least with any appreciable severity. Today, I find those words hard to write.

What has surprised me the most in recent years is what I call suburban wildfires. Suburban wildfires, where ignitions are associated with human infrastructure or caused by humans themselves, burn homes as the primary fuel source and are transmitted between neighborhoods by green belts and parks. The fire that burned my brother’s home – just a half-mile from Interstate 5 in Talent – is an example of this. We fight these fires like they are in the wildlands because we have no other means, but that does not mean we do not have choices.

Solutions to our global fire challenge require addressing climate change, but our social or political will is not rising to the challenge. We must continue to strive for real, long-term solutions, but in the meantime we must adapt. We must adapt our communities and infrastructure through zoning regulations, improved building standards and materials, and active and lasting maintenance. We must restore our landscapes so they can adapt to this new fire reality and receive fire with fewer negative consequences. We must adapt fire management to get more of the right kind of fire, at the right places, at the right time, and for the right reasons. And we must adapt our expectations from the natural world.

Instead of searching for blame, take this opportunity to reflect. And recognize there is no blame to pass, only blame to accept. We all have a stake in this; a stake in the health of our natural ecosystems, in a resilient society, in the beautiful western landscapes we enjoy. We are all in this together. We have always been. Nature is there with us too. We can forge a path to a more resilient future.

Christopher J. Dunn is a research associate at the Oregon State University College of Forestry.