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What I’ve learned as a Talent resident a year after Almeda

Albert Einstein is credited with the saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. A year has gone by since the devastating Almeda fire leveled much of Talent and nearby Phoenix. What have I learned, and what does it mean when we do the same thing over and over again despite questionable results?

When I moved here in 1998, I was overjoyed with living in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet — the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion. I escaped the heat island of Washington, D.C., to blue skies, moderate summers, fresh air, wild rivers and snow-capped mountains. All of that changed recently as if someone flipped a switch, setting in motion repetitive heat domes and unprecedented droughts while causing residents to flee to coastal retreats. But there is no escape from a growing climate emergency that in the decades ahead may trigger catastrophes far greater than even the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just announced a “code-red” global emergency as there is precious little time before large portions of the Earth become uninhabitable. Their shocking report, prepared by 264 scientists from 66 countries and approved by 195 governments, reminds us that climate change is unequivocally human-caused and increasingly dangerous. There is no doubt that we are the ones that flipped the switch by altering the delicate balance between the biosphere and the atmosphere. Consider, over 1 million species face imminent human-caused extinctions. Older biodiverse forests, needed to absorb our carbon emissions so the planet doesn’t overheat further, are down to less than a third globally and even less so in our region. For decades we have treated our atmosphere as a dumping ground for emissions making fire seasons last longer and become more dangerous to communities that have not adapted.

Rather than deal with the root causes, we were told by land managers and elected officials that if we simply thinned more of the Ashland watershed and surroundings, homes would be protected and smoke would eventually dissipate. But thinning had nothing to do with Ashland escaping the Almeda fire, rather it was the luck of the winds.

Unfortunately, strong easterly winds swept the fire into Talent and Phoenix, igniting propane tanks that acted like Roman candles in casting embers from structure to structure. Forests were not to blame in residential areas with few trees. Extreme temperatures, high winds, and historic drought were the culprits, unprepared homes the climate chaos victims. While land managers fiddled with thinning in the backcountry, towns burned down.

During most summers, smoke pours into our region from fires in Siberia and Alaska, crisscrossing the country and generating hazy skies as far away as New York City. No amount of thinning can assure the smoke problem will be much less. Our air quality is influenced by fires from distant lands.

Unsubstantiated claims of the Bootleg fire slowing in Eastern Oregon because of “managed forests” create unrealized expectations that thinning, fuel breaks, and clearcuts can protect communities. Satellite imagery obtained from Google Earth, however, revealed that despite tens of thousands of acres of such treatments, the fire did not slow down. Thinning near the town of Sisters is often portrayed as the poster child for saving it from the 2017 Milli fire. However, daily fire incident reports showed the wind changed direction and apparently pushed the fire away. The 2018 Camp fire, which destroyed Paradise, California, was aided by clearcuts, “fuels reduction” projects and post-fire salvage logging that contributed to rapid fire spread. The 2017 Eagle Creek fire jumped over the Columbia Gorge in one night, sending firebrands miles ahead of the flame front that no fuel break could have stopped. Bizarre pyro-tornadoes and pyro-cumulus clouds with fire-propagating lightning bolts are not slowed by thinning. Rather, they are charged up by our emissions.

Talent “strong” is cause to celebrate the resilient human spirit, but the rebuild is unfortunately not with home-hardening in mind. We must allocate government spending to help with fire safety and home affordability in rebuilds, contain sprawl into dangerous fire-prone areas, harden existing structures, make defensible space mandatory, and stop blaming forests for the problem. And we must cut the dangerous feedback between carbon emissions and wildfires by switching to clean, renewable energy. It means reforming forestry practices that create flammable clearcuts, logging slash, and tightly packed small trees that blow up in fires. And it means protecting older forests as nature’s climate solution. To do otherwise, risks perpetuating the insane cycle of doing the same thing over and expecting a different outcome.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D, chief scientist for Wild Heritage, is an award-winning author of over 200 peer-reviewed science papers and books including his latest, “Conservation Science and Advocacy for a Planet in Peril: Speaking Truth to Power.”