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Guest Opinion: Who's to blame for 2014 wildfires?

The numerous, large-scale fires that have plagued our region this summer have been nothing short of catastrophic. While it’s true that we are currently experiencing anemic winters causing extremely dry conditions, the real cause of this year’s devastating fires has been largely preventable. Specifically, long-term fire suppression combined with profuse ingrowth and the lack of management, has caused recent lightning ignited fires to be explosive.

This year, the Klamath National Forest (KNF) just to our south was hit especially hard. There were four major fires totaling over 220,000 acres, with some still burning. To put this in simple terms, the area that has burned this year alone within the KNF is over 343 square miles. This represents approximately 13 percent of the entire 1.7 million-acre forest.

In Southern Oregon, we witnessed the Beaver complex that consumed over 35,000 acres, as well as several other lightning-sparked fires that soiled our air for weeks. These fires did not burn slowly or mildly. Quite the contrary, these fires burned rapidly with high intensity, and in many cases, progressed at rates in terms of miles per day. Many areas that burned were deemed “protected” by either designated wilderness area or in other land allocations such as “Late Successional Reserves," where only very limited management can occur.

Some have argued that forest fires in general are “rejuvenating,” or “cleansing” to the environment. This is truly a romanticized view of what is actually occurring. The reality is that our forests are overgrown and are burning so severely that the soils become sterile and hydrophobic, and essential organic layers are lost. Entire stands of trees have been completely incinerated, wildlife habitat has been destroyed, and the end result has been anything but restorative. The intensity of these conflagrations has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.

The outcome of this year’s fires raises the question: Why do we let this happen? Public-agency managers constantly face an uphill battle against interest groups who believe human intervention is somehow immoral. In fact, these groups constantly lobby for more areas to be off-limits to management.

It appears these groups have no concern for the actual environmental disaster caused by these mega-fires and will not support substantial management efforts to limit them. All of us should hold them accountable and ask some basic questions to those that stifle effective forest management;

Where is your public outcry about the absolute wreckage caused by this year’s fires?

Why dissect and scrutinize every forest management proposal in an effort to find negative effects to wildlife habitat, but when entire landscapes are destroyed, there’s no analysis or recognition?

Why are there challenges to any project that proposes to construct short, temporary road segments, but then there is no comment when tens of miles of forestland is bulldozed 40 feet wide for fire lines?

Why is there complete silence about global warming concerns when CO2 gets released in enormous quantities while fires burn and during post-fire decay/decomposition?

What about the wildlife itself that cannot get out of the way of fast-moving fire and is burned alive?

I have heard from those representing the environmental community trying to save our forests from the evils of forest management and logging for years. They get up in arms and draft lengthy protests about small U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management projects designed to reduce forest densities and fuel loads. However, when thousands of acres are completely incinerated, no protest, no comments.

I encourage anyone reading this to take a hard look at what is actually happening to your public forests. Go out and look at the effects of these mega-fires for yourself. See what your “protected” forests look like after these fires are out. Witness the real effects of a hands-off, do-nothing approach and recognize those interest groups who advocate for it.

This unacceptable level of devastation will continue and is completely preventable if we don’t start expanded management efforts. We must come to the realization that this needless destruction is a direct result of management limitations combined with endless objections, appeals and litigation to projects. Just declaring an area “protected” means absolutely nothing in reality, and I would argue that there is not a more imprecise term when used in forest policy. This status quo is not tolerable!

Jeremy Wuerfel is a professional forester and president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.