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A look back at this year’s fire season

Posted by Andrew Spaeth on December 8, 2015

Wildfire in the western U.S. has grown into an annual goliath, nurtured by reactive not proactive management.

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On October 15, the National Interagency Coordination Center, the clearing house for major U.S. incidents like severe weather and wildfire, declared the 2015 fire season over when they issued their final briefing that stated there were no large uncontained wildfires in the Pacific Northwest region.

That was good news for fire managers and communities that had dealt with dry conditions and an especially long, expensive, and destructive fire season. This year in Oregon and Washington 4,212 wildfires burned across 1,399,898 acres. 

This photo, taken from space in August, gives some sense of the size and extent of fires that burned in the Pacific Northwest. Across the nation, wildfires burned more than 9.41 million acres, which is well above the ten-year average of 6.49 million acres per year.

Wildfires are a natural part of the dry forest ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest, but many scientists argue that the current fire conditions are uncharacteristic. This is due to a host of factors, including past management activities and a century-long policy of fire suppression.

Compounding the problem is the annual transfer of Forest Service budget dollars from planned restoration projects to wildfire fighting efforts. As fire seasons grow longer with increasing numbers of larger, more destructive fires, this shift in spending is a temporary band-aid on a growing problem. USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reported to OPB in August, this is “the first time in the history of the Forest Service that we're spending more on fire suppression than anything else.” 

A recent report authored by leading scientists and forest practitioners in the Pacific Northwest emphasizes how important restoration projects are to the overall ecological health of forests. Their study focused on 11 million acres in Oregon and Washington, and found that the nearly half of the forested land needs a change in its current structure – the density of the forest and the age of the trees – to restore ecological health. Structure can be changed with mechanical treatments like thinning and prescribed burning, while also promoting the growth of old trees and late-development forest structures that are more fire resilient. By removing biomass, reducing wildfire fuel, and enhancing wildlife habitat, such projects provide a unique opportunity to enhance the environment while also boosting the local economy with jobs in the woods. 

Sustainable Northwest is on the front lines of this work, bringing together environmentalists, scientists, loggers, outdoor enthusiasts, and a host of community-based leaders and practitioners to advance forest restoration efforts. Learn how Sustainable Northwest accomplished this in a rural community in Oregon: Forest and community well-being in eastern Oregon