BEND, Ore. - Active management, thinning, fuel reduction and a major increase in use of controlled fire in Oregon's forests are all going to be necessary if the state is going to reduce the type of catastrophic, hugely expensive wildfires that erupted this year, a new report concludes.
There is an adequate base of scientific information now available to take such management actions, researchers say, and if fully implemented they could help protect the trees, communities, watersheds, soils, wildlife, and endangered species that are at risk from uncontrolled wildfire.
The current approach being used in Western forests is not sustainable, the report said.
The assessment, titled "Fire in Oregon's Forests: Assessing the Risks, Effects and Treatment Options," was sponsored by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute and coordinated by Stephen Fitzgerald, an associate professor in Oregon State University's Extension Forestry Program. It was presented today at a professional conference in Bend, at which fire and forestry experts from across the nation spoke.
"The challenge is to manage these forests in a way that resembles natural conditions of the past when fire was more prevalent," Fitzgerald said. "We have a large amount of scientific information about forest and fire ecology that should allow us to do that, and the health of our forests, watersheds and communities are at stake."
A diverse group of scientists, forest managers, landowners, business representatives, environmental advocates and political leaders will participate today in the one-day conference, which is sponsored by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, OSU College of Forestry, and Oregon Department of Forestry.
This conference coincides with what has become one of Oregon's worst wildfire seasons in decades, in which nearly one million acres burned in the state, including the largest in over a century, the Biscuit Fire of nearly 500,000 acres.
The dilemma of Oregon and much of the American West can be directly linked to a century of fire suppression, selective logging of large, fire-resistant trees and a failure to thin the abundant tree and shrub regeneration, the researchers say in their report.
These changes, along with increased insect and disease problems and a shift in some areas from pine-dominated to fir-dominated forests, have transformed millions of acres of forests into a condition where fires burn with less frequency but with unnaturally high intensity. More frequent, less harmful fires have too often been replaced by high-severity, stand-replacement fires that kill most of the trees. Areas with such lethal fire regimes have doubled in the past century.
The annual acreage of forest fires in Oregon, due to fire suppression, is now less than one-fourth its historical average, the report notes. But a much greater proportion of those fires are of very high intensity.
Among the findings of the report:
- Fire suppression and other forest management activities have fundamentally changed the status of millions of acres of Oregon forests, and there are now 120 million acres of federal forests in the state that have significantly departed from their natural fire regime.
- The more severe fires from forests in this condition can damage soil, fish and wildlife habitat, kill most trees, increase the risk to threatened and endangered species, increase stream sedimentation and flooding, and have many other negative effects.
- Wildfire may pose the single greatest threat to habitat for the northern spotted owl within its range, and also pose the greatest danger to some threatened fish populations.
- Some short-term impact on various fish or wildlife habitat may be expected with any stand treatment, but potentially significant risks might be posed by a "do nothing" approach which risks stand-replacement fires.
- There are about 240,000 homes worth about $6.5 billion within the wildland-urban interface, which along with more intense fires have greatly complicated firefighting efforts and caused a skyrocketing cost for fire suppression.
- If the current "passive management" approach is continued, forest health conditions can be expected to deteriorate, fuel loads will increase even further, social conflicts will be exacerbated and the range of damages from wildfire will worsen in a "lose-lose" scenario.
- t's probable that active management will cost far less than what is now being spent on suppressing fires and rehabilitating damaged ecosystems.
- Thinning, pruning, mowing and prescribed burning, along with retention of large, fire resistant trees, could significantly improve the health and fire resistance of many forests.
- Fuel reduction and forest restoration treatments should first target forests adjacent to the wildland-urban interface, and then move on to forests that traditionally had the most frequent fire intervals.
- Active management should not attempt to prevent all wildfire, but rather create forests and landscapes that are better able to survive wildfire intact and continue to produce the ecological, economic, and social "goods and services" that are desired.
It's unlikely that most of these treatments in Oregon and across the West will entirely pay for themselves, the researchers said, and it's important that Congress continue to fund the National Fire Plan and implement the Western Governors' 10-year comprehensive strategy.
One of the key challenges, Fitzgerald said, will be the application of appropriate treatments on a much wider basis - millions, instead of hundreds of acres. Citizen involvement in these issues and public acceptance of proposed solutions will be critical to the success of any initiative, the report said.