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Wild Side: Can we manage to live with wildfire?

While the mountains across the valley might not be in focus, what has come into focus in the past few weeks is that we desperately need to build a better relationship with fire.

The smoke hangs over the Rogue Valley like a pall. It’s ruining our summer plans and for some of us, our health. It’s devastating our local economy, which is highly dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation. It’s a big deal and has us searching hard for answers. Why is there so much on fire? What do we do about it? Can we live with this smoke? Is this the new “normal?”

The truth is that there are rational steps we can be taking right now that would both restore forests and prepare our communities for future wildfire. We just don’t have the focused leadership to get this work done. My position on fire and land management has been challenged by both timber industry representatives and even some conservationists. But, it’s what I firmly believe is the best approach and grounded in the most current research on climate, forests, and wildfire.

First, we know how to restore forests through purposeful thinning and prescribed fire, but we do not do nearly enough. Most forests in our region are suffering from decades of logging big trees and putting out fires that would have removed small trees and brush and left forests more resilient to successive fire. The result is that today we have too few big trees with thick bark that have withstood fires for hundreds of years and too many small, thin barked trees that are highly flammable.

Thinning and prescribed fire won’t stop wildfires, but they can be a huge help to firefighters. By intentionally setting fires during wetter times of the year, we can reduce the likelihood that more severe fires will happen in the dry season. In a recent example, Forest Service personnel were aided by previous fire treatments in last year’s Miller Complex Fire in the Applegate Valley.

While prescribed fire works, our elected leaders and land managers need adequate funding for this critically important work. They also need a supportive public that is willing to accept the resulting smoke in wet seasons. Earlier this week, OPB covered this topic in depth with “When It Comes to Wildfires, Politics Lag Behind Science.” I recommend checking it out.

Thinning projects don’t always pan out economically, and so it’s hard for industry to support them. But, the truth is that smaller, commercial-sized logs can be utilized by local mills. There are millions of these trees in degraded forests, and along strategic roads and ridges, that could be removed to help manage fires into the future. Again, we need our leaders to invest adequate funding as not all these trees pay their way out of the woods.

Second, we know that widespread clearcut logging and herbicide use on millions of acres of private industrial land increases fire, yet we continue these practices over and over again. Most recently, a study by Oregon State University found that industrial private lands in Southern Oregon burned with much greater severity than public forests.

Most disheartening is the repetitive call to open up our public forests for more industrial logging. Yes, we need more work to reduce fuels in the forest, but industrial logging is not going to reduce future risk of wildfires. Our own federal land managers continue to put out commercial logging projects on public lands where their own analysis shows these practices will increase fire risk for three to four decades.

Most importantly, we know for certain that climate change is real. Our world is warming and the forests of the West are drying out. Research shows us that the moisture levels are related to the temperature, and that persistently warm temperatures are drying out vegetation and fueling big fires. As Jonathan Cox of Cal Fire told CNN: “What we’re seeing in California right now is more destructive, larger fires burning at rates we have historically never seen.”

Though the science is clear that climate change is fueling this wildfire crisis, our elected leaders continue to do nothing of real consequence to solve it. President Trump is taking us backwards by increasing rather than decreasing the amount of fossil fuel burning.

It is time to demand action. Let’s not accept climate change as the “new normal.” It’s not normal and elected leaders must take action today. We must also demand funding to take the steps we know will restore our forests and protect our communities. The old saying goes, “nature bats last.” We won’t be able to entirely control the impacts that are already present, but we can make decisions right now that will significantly reduce impacts into the future.

Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.