All the king’s horses can't make wildfires go away
State Sen. Alan DeBoer recently convened town hall meetings in Medford and Ashland on last summer’s wildfires and actions under consideration at the state Legislature. What we hoped would be an informed discussion became a venue for DeBoer to promote unfounded theories, point fingers and dismiss real dialogue. As ecologists who have studied forest ecosystems for decades, we realize that wildfire is alarming, smoke unhealthy, and everyone is looking for solutions. However, we take issue with DeBoer’s unhelpful ideas and offer caution about using forest thinning as a panacea to all issues surrounding wildfires.
DeBoer started both meetings by giving the floor to William Simpson, who proposes introducing feral horses to control flammable vegetation in the Siskiyou Mountains. In doing so, DeBoer privileged a position that is not only unscientific and unworkable, but already proven ineffective. In the 1910s, the Forest Service studied livestock use of shrub-dominated areas in the Siskiyous and found that livestock were unsuccessful at converting large swaths of shrubs to grass. Simpson’s proposal is unlikely to pass the federal permitting process and valuable time should not be wasted on it. Yet, Congressman Greg Walden and Curry County Commissioner Court Boice have endorsed it.
Worse yet, DeBoer spent much of his time insinuating that the Forest Service’s (nonexistent) “let burn policy” resulted in this summer’s large wildfires. This was clearly to bolster his proposal that incident command for all fires in Oregon should be turned over to the Oregon Department of Forestry. In reality, the Forest Service immediately fought every fire — but with firefighter safety as the highest priority.
DeBoer seems to believe we can put out all wildfires and not have any smoke. The fact is, firefighters successfully suppress nearly all fires they are charged with controlling. A scant few fires grow large because of extreme fire weather (high winds and temperatures), regardless of firefighters' best efforts. And we cannot stop all fires under hot, windy conditions (it is unsafe to try), much like we cannot stop hurricanes.
Though rarely acknowledged, most of the acreage burned in Oregon this summer was in the naturally dense forests typical of high-precipitation areas of the state. Relatively little burned in pine-dominated, drier forests often publicized as needing thinning. Most of the growth in these fires occurred in single afternoons driven by high winds and did not burn “catastrophically” due to a lack of management as claimed. Instead, these complex burns created a mosaic of diverse habitats for a rich web of life that includes elk, songbirds, woodpeckers, flowering plants, new conifer growth and morel mushrooms.
Thinning small trees and prescribed fire may reduce future fire intensity under certain conditions, but extreme weather-driven fires in mountainous terrain will burn through just about anything. Most small tree-thinning projects do not pencil out economically. Instead, managers often propose logging large, fire-resistant trees in older forests while leaving behind slash, which works against the stated goals of these projects. We must not oversell forest thinning as the primary solution to reducing wildfire risks. The recent increase in wildfires is due mainly to a climate we are changing and less to so-called “overgrown” forests. Thinning should be targeted near homes and communities as well as in industrial tree plantations that act as firebombs when wildfires race through logging slash and small trees.
Large wildfires and dense shrubland, oak woodland and conifer forest have been commonplace in Southwest Oregon for millennia. Modern American society has lived here for only 150 years. Where we place our homes and infrastructure will matter far more than whether we thin vegetation across the entire landscape.
Instead of pushing unworkable proposals, elected officials should invest in policies most likely to keep people safe during wildfires, such as land-use zoning that restricts development in fire-prone areas, defensible space around homes and communities, fire protection plans, and federal agency-led fire management efforts. As informed citizens, we would be wise to take the best of imperfect solutions while acknowledging that much will be out of our control during large wildfires burning under extreme conditions. We need to prepare for this inevitability and be cautious not to ingrain a false hope that thinning vegetation will solve all fire problems. Wild-horse brigades and proposals to abandon federal firefighting expertise are extremely shortsighted and should be rejected. DeBoer should put aside misinformed ideas and invite a rational, science-based discussion that focuses on protecting lives and homes. Wildfires are not going away no matter how much vegetation is “controlled” or who is calling the shots.
— Dominic DiPaolo is a vegetation ecologist currently classifying and mapping the vegetation of three regional National Parks and has published peer-reviewed research on the historic vegetation cover of southwest Oregon. Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., chief scientist at Geos Institute, has authored over 200 scientific publications and books, including “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Wildfires: Nature’s Phoenix.” Dennis Odion, Ph.D., is a vegetation ecologist at Southern Oregon University and author of numerous science publications on fire ecology.