Fire: Friend or foe for Oregon forests?

Posted by Andrew Spaeth on August 21, 2015

It is an unforgettable scene: A dark grey plume of smoke rising against the skyline. A fire is burning.

Photo by: USDOI Bureau of Land Management

For millennia, fire has played a role in the evolution of forest ecosystems across the Pacific Northwest, and historically, Native Americans used fire as a natural management tool. With the westward expansion of settlement, particularly the proliferation of homes and structures in the wildland-urban interface in the last few decades, human relationship to fire has dramatically changed.

In the summer of 1910, more than 1700 fires across the American West burned 3 million acres of forested land. The U.S. Forest Service, established only five years earlier, adopted an approach to fire management that aimed to put out fires before they spread. As a result of this fire suppression policy which has dominated agency directive for more than a century, forested areas that once evolved with fire have become dense stands of overcrowded trees.

Wildfires today presents one of the most complex natural resource management challenges facing public land managers in the American West, and by the dollars, one of the most expensive, as recently reported by the U.S. Forest Service. Over the last decade, fire management activities have cost tax payers billions of dollars, and now eat up more than half of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget. The size of wildfires has also steadily grown, sometimes spreading into places that have devastating impacts on communities. This year’s Canyon Creek Complex in Oregon, Lawyer Complex in Idaho, and Chelan Fire in Washington, among others, all resulted in devastating losses of homes and property, forever changing the lives of people in the affected communities.

There is an ongoing discussion about whether or not wildfires should be treated like other natural disasters. Currently, the Forest Service foots the bill, making it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the agency to conduct the very restoration work that will reduce the risk of uncharacteristic fires. In terms of personnel alone, a good indicator of how the agency is spending their resources, the number of fire staff employed by the Forest Service between 1995 and 2015 has more than doubled while staff dedicated to managing national forest lands has been cut in half. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, one proposed solution currently before Congress, provides a disaster cap adjustment for wildfire fighting activities, which would fund certain wildfires similarly to other natural disasters. In short, the act would help ensure that forest management and restoration funds be used for their intended purposes, rather than be reallocated for emergency suppression efforts. Passage of this act is a critical step in restoring resilient forest conditions.

There are additional efforts underway to reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires, namely collaborative, community-based forest restoration. This approach was pioneered by Sustainable Northwest more than twenty years ago and has proven to be critical in meeting social, economic, and ecological goals. Disparate stakeholders – from environmentalists to the timber industry – are necessary partners in developing durable solutions that will not only address the legacy of fire suppression, but also work to restore wildlife habitat, protect critical watersheds, and enhance economic conditions in rural communities. Across the West, forest collaborative groups are working to increase the pace, scale, and quality of restoration with the goal of making our national forests resilient to wildfire, insects, and disease. 

The State of Oregon recognizes the value of collaborative restoration and recently increased their investment in the Department of Forestry’s Federal Forest Health Program from $2.8 million to $5 million for the next two years. This program supports forest collaboration and forest restoration activities on public lands across the state. 

Wildfire is an essential natural process, particularly in dry forest ecosystems, yet the role of fire as a management tool, and our ability to effectively employ it, remains limited to relatively few burgeoning examples. Restored, resilient forests respond to fire in ways that are ecologically beneficial and more socially acceptable. Returning forests to more historical, resilient conditions is an important step in reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires and ensuring that that dark plume of smoke you see in the sky is not threatening communities or the resources forests provide, but rather is part of a natural resource management approach that works with nature – protecting communities and the resources we enjoy – like recreation trails – and the resources we require – like clean air and drinking water.