With all the snow that accumulated in the mountains last winter and nonstop rain that fell this spring, state forestry and fire officials were forecasting an average fire season for the state of Oregon.
That prediction fell by the wayside by July.
“The number of fires, acres burned and costs were all significantly above average on Oregon Department of Forestry-protected lands,” David Lorenz, area director for the Southern region, told members of the Association of Oregon Counties last week.
There were 100 more fires in Oregon this year compared to the 10-year average, with just four — the Chetco Bar Fire in Curry County, the Horse Prairie Fire in the Rogue Valley, the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge and the Milli Fire in Central Oregon — contributing the most to acres burned.
The Chetco Bar Fire, the second-largest wildfire in the state this season, was started by lightning and ultimately burned 191,125 acres east of Brookings. The third-largest wildfire, the Eagle Creek Fire, burned a quarter of that.
The figures all show trends in hotter-burning fires, longer fire seasons and drier weather.
“The weather we get in June, July and August is what really determines the severity of fire season,” Lorenz said, adding that even though Oregon has added about 1 million residents to its rosters since the 1990s, the number of fires has remained about the same.
It’s the average number of acres burned each year that has exponentially increased in the past four decades.
In the 1990s, each year fires burned an average of 10,000 acres, ODF data indicates. That doubled in the 2000s — and doubled again in the past seven years, to an average of about 40,000 acres.
An estimated 20 million board feet will be salvaged from about 1,500 privately-owned timber acres most severely hit by the Chetco Bar Fire. An Environmental Assessment (EA) is being pushed through quickly to enable foresters to get to more timber — ideally before next fall before it rots.
“We have to log it by next summer or else we will be in trouble,” a Wild Rivers Coast Forest Collaborative report from early November reads. “April 30 is the Forest Service’s aggressive timeline for a decision (on the EA). Realistically, it’s going to bleed into May. The regional forester gave a deadline of June, and the Forest Service can’t let out contracts before any decisions are made.”
Kelly Timchak of the Lower Rogue Watershed Council noted that expanding salvage operations to include more acreage makes the process more complex.
“Easy logging is based on whether there are roads or access there already,” Timchak said. “Fuels reduction doesn’t usually get litigated but when they are talking about building roads into a roadless area, you start running into litigation, so that’s an example of how complexity is added.”
Many are concerned about the impacts of soil erosion to fish populations in the river. Frank Burris of the Oregon State University Extension office said mulching is vital to solving the sediment problem.
“This will be expensive but we need to solve it in the Chetco River,” he said. “The reason the Forest Service chose not to do erosion is because they (the Burn Area Emergency Response team) said the downstream Forest Service values at risk do not justify treatment costs. But if you start adding fish in as a value on the Chetco River, that is a fallacious argument.”
He said although mulching might only be 50 percent effective in holding sediment out of the river, it’s far better than nothing.
“I propose we put the burden back on the state to pay for erosion control,” he said. “My research shows that mulch and forest mulch is the best way to do erosion control. It makes sense if we are doing salvage logging and removing material alongside roads, we use that material to mulch and return it to the forest floor to reduce erosion. My proposal suggests that we pick areas with the steepest slopes, highest fire burn intensity and most erodible soils and treat the top 20 percent with mulch.”
State Rep. David Brock Smith noted the new wildfire scar is much closer to the city of Brookings and salvage operations must be conducted to reduce that fuel load.
According to Cathy Bounds of the Bureau of Land Management, that agency has 11 culverts that need replacement, and the agency received funding to replant 370 acres for Coho salmon the murrelet and the spotted owl. Additionally, warning signs are going up, noxious weed monitoring is slated to begin soon and in the long-term, the BLM plans to plant 3,000 Douglas fir trees.
“Our foresters have determined about 1,200 acres could be salvaged (of BLM land), Bounds said. “But, to get it done quickly, if we’re going to do categorical exclusion, we’d be looking at doing 250 acres through the NEPA process as quickly as possible. That only allows about half-mile of road construction, so access will be our biggest obstacle.”
The agency is also working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife because two new pairs of spotted owls were spotted last year in the area now burned.
“They’re looking at habitat to see if there are any remnant pieces left that the birds can utilize, or, if we’ve lost the habitat completely, if we can get their buy-in for doing more salvage.”
Wildfires in 2017 were considered epic throughout the nation with more than 8.8 million acres burned, compared to the 10-year average of 5.7 million acres.
The costs were record-setting as well, and having three hurricanes strike back-to-back — Harvey in Houston, Irma in northwest Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico — diverted many funds from the conflagrations in the West.
Here, there were significant impacts to timber values, wildlife habitat, streams and landowners, six of whom lost their homes. Another 20 outbuildings were destroyed, 12,286 structures threatened and more than 5,100 people evacuated due to fire or smoke.
The costs have yet to be determined. The ODF said its large-fire costs are at $38.9 million, about $4.5 million more than the agency’s 10-year average. That doesn’t include costs to the U.S. Forest Service, estimated at $70 million for the Chetco Bar Fire alone.
The ODF has received FEMA Fire Management Assistance Grant declarations for the major fires, which should lower its costs to about $32.9 million.
And legislators at state and national levels are emphasizing the importance of addressing federal fire policy, particularly as it relates to mega-fires, climate change and the urban-wildland interface — where people and forest mingle.
Several local entities are working on data collection, fire prevention and recovery aspects of the Chetco Fire, including Brookings, which has applied for grants for economic analyses, and the Chetco Bar Fire Prevention and Recovery group, which is working to keep forest service roads open to the public as well as for salvage, reforesting and fire prevention work; and the Wild Rivers Coast Forest Collaborative, which is examining areas of the forest, particularly near Agness, to develop management templates.
This winter is forecast to be about as wet as last year and expected to bring silt, debris and chemicals down the Chetco River. How all that forecasted rainfall translates into growth on barren and scorched ground in the new burn scar, too, has yet to be seen.