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Oregon’s forests were born to burn

It is fire season, and dry forests like the Buckskin fire near Cave Junction were born to burn. While it is understandable to get caught up in hyperbole over fire, given it affects us all, we would like to offer an ecological perspective on fire as nature’s phoenix and ways to coexist safely.

In our region fire is to dry forests as rain is to rainforests; both are important in the life of a forest to provide clean water, climate stabilization, hunting and fishing, outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat. A fire does not destroy a forest; rather, it simply resets nature’s clock as it has been doing for millennia.

After a fire, the dead trees are not a “wasteland” that needs to be “restored” by logging, but rather their roots anchor fragile soils and trunks shield young seedlings from intense sunlight. A kaleidoscope of wildflowers attracts pollinating butterflies and bees. Songbirds and woodpeckers prosper in the rich post-fire environment, as do bears and deer on new forage. This fire-adapted web of life that soon springs from the ashes rivals the more heralded old-growth forests.

A single large fire creates variety in nature, and variety is the spice of life. Large fires burn mostly in low- and moderate-intensity effects, killing few of the largest trees. In some places, within a large fire, there will be both small and large patches of high-intensity burns where most or all trees are killed. The ensuing living mosaic of plant and wildlife communities is exactly what nature intended. We can see this wellspring of life in the aftermath of big fires like the Biscuit (2002); Grizzly Peak (2002); Douglas (2013); and Klamath (2014). The post-fire environment is some of the very best, and most threatened, wildlife habitat in our region.

Witness the black-backed Woodpecker. So named because its jet-black backside is camouflaged against charred trees, this woodpecker follows fires in search of post-fire habitat to feed and nest in large fire-killed trees. It is a bellwether for hundreds of birds, bats, butterflies and other plants and wildlife that depend on post-fire habitat. In California and Oregon, it is under consideration as a threatened species because post-fire logging and fire suppression have nearly eliminated its habitat.

We also have heard the calls for more logging on Bureau of Land Management O&C lands to “fire proof” forests. But forests cannot be fireproofed, as scientists have determined by examining satellite images for hundreds of fires since the 1980s and checking fire effects on the ground.

Consistently in large fires, forests with the least environmental protections and most intensive past logging (private timberlands, and some National Forest and BLM lands) experience the most intense and unnatural fires. Likewise, tree plantations with densely stocked trees repeatedly burn in the hottest fire intensities. The so-called checkerboard pattern of logged-over private lands alternating with logged and unlogged BLM and national forests in our region complicates natural fire effects. For instance, last year’s fire just east of the Greensprings blew up when it hit flammable logging slash piled 12 feet or higher, mostly on private lands. The Biscuit fire burned much more intensely when it encountered slash in post-fire logged areas from the 1987 Silver fire.

By contrast, the most protected forests with no history of logging, which sometimes have the densest natural forests (like National Parks, Roadless Areas, and Wilderness), tend to have the least intense fire effects and burn in a healthy fire mosaic.

With global warming increasingly influencing forest fires, we cannot safely prepare for fires without treating the causes: the burning of fossil fuels combined with deforestation, which are triggering unnatural fires, hurricanes, droughts, diminished snowpack, and flooding in many places.

In the meantime, there are ways to co-exist with fire that involve all landowners in the solution. Responsible county zoning ordinances are needed to limit housing sprawl into fire-prone areas and to cut down on risks to firefighters. Where homes already exist, homeowners need to build with fire-resistant materials and reduce vegetation nearest the home, as the odds of a home surviving a forest fire are up to 90 percent or more when taking these precautions. Logging in the backcountry does nothing to improve those odds. Restoration and prescribed burning in fire-prone tree plantations makes sense for many reasons, including providing jobs for repairing past logging damage to forests and streams.

Recently, we were joined by 25 leading scientists from around the world in releasing the first global synthesis of nature’s phoenix and ways to co-exist. Large fires are not ecological disasters, and we can prepare for them without destroying their ecosystem benefits.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., is chief scientist with the Geos Institute (www.geosinstitute.org) in Ashland. Chad Hanson, Ph.D., is an ecologist with the John Muir Project (www.johnmuirproject.org), Big Bear City, Calif. They are the editors and co-authors of the new book, “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix,” published by Elsevier (http://tinyurl.com/o6lc5su).