By Tim Palmer
Flames raging every summer in southern Oregon remind us of the danger from wildfire. Not wanting our houses to burn is surely one wish we all share.
So what can be done? Consider these five points.
First, protect our houses with fire-resisting improvements and create defensible space around them. This won’t stop fires or guarantee escape from damage, but good results are proven, and experts agree that this is the single most effective and affordable option to reduce losses and improve safety. Even in Paradise, California, homes that had been “fire-proofed” survived (see Kaplan and Sellers, Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2018). How-to-do-it tips are easily found.
Second, young plantation forests can be thinned at the edges of towns, homes, and roads strategically selected as fire breaks. These densely packed young forests grow in the wake of clearcuts of the past, and they burn the hottest—”like gasoline,” as local forester Jim Rogers has said. Removing small trees here and leaving larger ones can reduce risk under moderate fire conditions if these buffers are maintained.
Next, protect from logging the mature forests that remain. These older forests are where fires cool owing to old trees’ thick bark that’s fire resistant. Old trees’ towering boles lack low limbs otherwise providing ladders for flames to climb. Also, big trees cast shade keeping the ground cooler and less clogged with brush and young trees that are explosively flammable. Old forests are not immune to fire, but they are less likely to burn intensely (see Ecosphere, 10-26-16, Bradley & Hanson).
Unfortunately, not much old-growth remains in southern Oregon. Only 1 to 4 percent is left in the entire coast range. So, we need to restore as many of our cutover forests as possible to mature conditions that are less ignitable.
Some people make the case for more commercial clearcutting of mature forests, believing that any tree trucked to the mill is one that won’t burn. But the trees and brush that grow after a mature forest is logged burn hotter, faster, and more completely than the forest we once had. There are reasons for commercial logging of big trees, but fire safety is not one of them.
Onward, our local governments need to take responsibility for their role in reducing fire hazards that endanger public investments, firefighters, and residents. Areas most-prone to fire should be identified and prospective home builders warned about investing and living in harm’s way. Ordinances should be adopted to require protective measures for new homes. These have been enacted elsewhere in the West.
Further, planning programs need to favor development within established communities rather than in outlying dry woodlands that are just waiting to burn. In Oregon, this approach is already supported through our urban growth boundaries. We need to take them more seriously.
Finally, do whatever we can to halt climate change. This is a tall order since the principal cause is our burning of fossil fuels. But global warming is the main reason that today’s fires are more intense. And the problem will only worsen with hotter summers, increasing drought, and furnace-like winds that we’re already seeing more often.
Global warming causes infernos that overcome any defenses we can muster, and the resulting blazes defy any type of forestry prescription one might imagine — thinned, clearcut, selectively logged, or whatever. The problem will grow until we address the climate crisis by moving beyond a fossil-fuel economy and toward renewable energy sources.
Some of these five points are short-range fixes and some will take decades or more. There’s no silver bullet. But it’s time to work together on approaches that make sense and that are supported by fire analysts.
Real solutions require that we put vested interests aside and engage with new commitments and new responsibilities to meet the challenges of a changing world.
Tim Palmer was formerly a firefighter for the Forest Service and National Park Service, a landscape architect, and a land-use planner, and is the author of 26 books on natural resources and the environment. He lives in Port Orford.