The deadly and destructive wildfires that swept through parts of Oregon in September are a grim reminder of the dangers Oregonians face, especially in thick timbered areas of the state.

Wildfire Aftermath

The Oak Park Motel was destroyed and the business sign melted by the hot flames that swept through the small Marion County town of Gates.

Devastation

The Holiday Farm Wildfire in Blue River of Lane County destroyed businesses, homes and vehicles.

Columbia County was one area that escaped the ravaging wildfires, but fire officials and forestry experts said the danger still exists.

For insight into the reality of the wildfires, The Chief spoke with Oregon State University Department of Forestry professors John D. Bailey and Meg Krawchuk.

The Chief: Why did we see such devastating wildfires in Oregon in September?

John Bailey: A high-wind event at the end of a long fire season in which the fuels were very dry, with ignitions in locations with relatively high amounts of fuel connected across many acres …and upwind of human communities. So, it was the intersection of importance factors determining both fire behavior and wildfire risk.

The Chief: What does Oregon need to do to help prevention such wildfire activity in the future?

Bailey: Fire behavior is driven by topography, weather and fuels. Topography remains relatively fixed (fortunately, but we aren’t out of 2020 yet!) and weather is set by the prevailing climate, which is getting warmer and creating longer fire seasons… and is projected to continue that trend into the future.

So, since excluding ignitions is impossible, we need to improve the fuel situation:

A. we need to prepare our human communities to be more resistant to both advancing flaming fronts and heat, as well as the ember rain from upwind wildfires.

B. we need to treat the assortment of fuels in the areas surrounding our human communities (the wildland-urban interface) to reduce the likelihood of extreme wildfire behavior, which will reduce the quantity of heat and reduce the load of embers that impact our communities.

C. we need to manage the larger landscape with an eye to all the future wildfires that are inevitable, so that the ember rain is reduced and our amazing Oregon landscape is more resistant and resilient to those wildfires – so that we have surviving trees and wildlife habitat and watersheds and roads/trails and all the things we value in our forests.

Meg Krawchuk: We need to think more pro-actively about our power grid structure, and increasingly consider shutting off power (and adapting to those potential shut-downs) when winds are predicted to be high, and be more cautious/preventative with human-caused ignitions overall.

The Chief: What can small communities in Columbia County in the center of area forests, be doing now to avoid such devastating and life-threatening wildfires?

Bailey: See above … and come together to work towards that solution. We have the knowledge and tools to do so much better than we currently do, so we have to stop blaming and fighting, and get to work!

The Chief: Is the ultimate solution more money for more research, prevention and education? If so, where would that money come from?

Bailey: Anything that requires more time/effort/focus will require more money, but our investment in research and education always yields savings and benefits in the long run – just look at the advance of our civilization. We know that treating fuels can yield money in the near term when it contains commercial components so it doesn’t have to be entirely funded by public dollars of one sort or another (federal, state and local).

Finally, we know that even if it costs some money in the near term, non-commercial fuel treatments can yield long-term economic benefits when more of the values (homes and forests) survive future wildfire. A large Civil Conservation Corp-style program would certainly benefit the situation we are in, but we also can make some progress within the system we currently have with better land management – land management that considers all the fuels out there.

Krawchuk: Valuable to increasingly examine programs that financially support, incentivize, fire hardening of homes and communities.

Chief: Your final thoughts?

Bailey: I’d add that prescribed fire, both in the spring/fall and during wildfire events themselves, will be part of the solution moving forward because it is our most effective tool for treating surface fuels out on the land. So, there is no future without some smoke in the air.

Krawchuk: We must recognize that we can’t stop fires from happening. Learning to coexist with fire is a critical challenge to all of us. We need to take this seriously, and not forget the issue once the smoke has cleared and the rains have come. Fire is an important ecological process that contributes to the biodiversity and function of our forest ecosystems, with different characteristic tempos in different places. So coexisting with fire is not just putting up with it, it means we also need to encourage fire in the right times and the right places.

The Oregon Office of Emergency Management reported nine people were killed, five left missing, 2,669 people were sheltered and the September wildfires destroyed 2,284 homes and 1,575 other structures.

John Bailey is a Professor of Silviculture and Fire Management at the OSU College of Forestry. Meg Krawchuk is an Associate Professor with the Landscape Fire and Conservation Research Group at the OSU College of Forestry’s Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society.

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