With wildfire season upon us, City Club would like to continue the conversation from our March 2018 forum, which featured the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project (DCFP) and their forest restoration efforts in the Deschutes National Forest. As with any good topic, 75 minutes is never enough time, and at the end of the forum, we received quite a few questions from our members. We asked a few DCFP members to answer your most pressing questions.
As we learned during the forum, many factors contribute to wildfire frequency and intensity, including: chances of being in the path of dry lightning storms (really high in Central Oregon!), current fuel load, past management and fire suppression efforts, the last several year’s precipitation and snow pack, current weather conditions and last but not least, human behavior.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been wildfires reported almost in every state. In Oregon alone, there are currently 22 large uncontained wildfires burning.
It is our duty as residents and visitors of frequent-fire ecosystems to be informed and engaged. What is being done to reduce the chance of high intensity, high-risk wildfires close to our communities? Why are we seeing more fires? How can we protect our homes, our property, and our families?
Do we really need Prescribed Fire?
Pete Caligiuri, Forest Ecologist, The Nature Conservancy, DCFP Member
Prescribed fires, also known as controlled burns, refer to the planned use of intentionally ignited fire by a team of experts under specific conditions of temperature, wind, and humidity. But why do we need them?
For millennia, our lower- elevation dry forests, such as the ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests across Central Oregon, have been shaped by frequent, low-intensity fires burning every ten to twenty-five years. These natural fires sustained a forest of fire-dependent trees and plants, maintained wildlife habitat for a diversity of species, recycled nutrients, and sustained a healthy forest ecosystem.
However, beginning with the arrival of settlers in Central Oregon and increasing in the era of 20th century firefighting, fire was steadily removed from our forests. Science over the last several decades has helped us better understand the negative consequences of removing natural fires and shed a great deal of light on the essential role that these frequent, low-intensity fires play in the fire-dependent forest of Central Oregon. In simple terms, this regular cycle of fire acted as a self-regulating force in our dry forests, limited the growth of trees and the accumulation of combustible material, and provided a natural check on future fires.
When it comes to making our fire-dependent forests healthy and resilient in the face of future wildfires, insects, drought, and a changing climate, we rely on a combination of thinning and prescribed fire as a means to reintroduce this critical natural process in a safe and controlled way. And not only that. Prescribed fire, in addition to sustaining healthy forest ecosystems, significantly reduces the risk of out-of-control wildfires; the kind that burn thousands (even tens of thousands) of acres, create hazardous air for weeks at a time, and mean real danger for our communities and firefighters.
Why are we seeing more wildfires?
Alison Green, Program Coordinator, Project Wildfire/FireFree, DCFP Member
Wildfire risk depends on a number of factors, including temperature, soil moisture, and the continuity and density of trees, shrubs, and other potential fuel. All these factors have strong direct or indirect ties to climate variability and climate change. Large wildfires in the United States have burned more than twice the area they did in 1970, and the average wildfire season is 78 days longer. Research shows that changes in climate, especially earlier snowmelt due to warming in the spring and summer, have led to hot, dry conditions that boost this increase in fire activity in some areas. Once a fire starts, warmer temperatures and drier conditions can help them spread and make them harder to put out. These conditions also contribute to the spread of the insects and disease that can ultimately kill trees, building up the fuels in a forest.
Although land use and firefighting tactics can play a role in lowering or raising risks, observed and anticipated changes in climate are expected to continue to increase the area affected by wildfires in the United States. However, there are things communities, builders, homeowners, and forest managers can do in the short term to reduce the likelihood and impacts of wildfires by:
- Practicing smart development and land use rules to discourage unsafe building practices in the Wildland Urban Interface.
- Increasing the space between structures and nearby trees and brush, and pursuing community scale approaches such as Firewise.
- Incorporating fire-resistant design features and materials in buildings.
- Creating healthier forests through landscape scale restoration and fuels treatment.
- Enabling safe and integrated wildland fire suppression response through cross training and agreements.
- Developing recovery plans before a fire hits, and implementing plans quickly after a fire to reduce erosion, limit flooding, minimize habitat damage, and rebuild the residential and business community.
How Can I Help?
Nicole Strong, Assistant Professor, Forestry and Natural Resources, Oregon State University Extension Service, DCFP Member
There are many ways you can help protect and enhance our fire-adapted ecosystems and community. Even though fire is a natural part of our environment, most wildfires are still started by improperly extinguished campfires, and happen during the most dangerous conditions of the year, and in areas that have high fuel loads.
In The Woods:
- Do not drive or park over vegetation! Stay on designated roads. The heat from a car’s exhaust can ignite some of our dry flammable fuels, like fescue grasses and bitterbrush shrubs. Bring extra water, a shovel, and a fire extinguisher if you are driving out in the forest.
- Check to make sure your off-road vehicle has a spark arrestor.
- Do not throw any smoking or ignited materials (cigarettes, fireworks, matches, etc.) from your vehicle.
- Be careful with your camp stoves, heaters, or lamps.
- Follow local fire restrictions. Currently campfires are banned in the Deschutes National Forest, but are allowed in designated campgrounds. Make sure you completely extinguish your campfire, by dousing it with water and stirring the fire until it is cold. We know that a fire can look extinguished, but dry hot weather and wind can re-ignite coals. Make sure you don’t start campfires on windy days, as they can quickly get out of your control.
- Work on your home’s defensible space. This involves steps like removing needles and pinecones off your roof, out of your gutters, and out of all the nooks and crannies where they (and embers) accumulate. This also involves making sure your home is built with appropriate fire-resistant materials, for example having proper mesh screens in air vents to prevent embers from flying into your home. Defensible space work is most effective if you get your neighbors to participate as well. Learn more about creating good defensible space from Deschutes County’s FireFree program.
- Make sure your landscape is comprised of fire-resistant plants. Don’t know what species are fire resistant? You can download a free plant guide from OSU Extension.
- Have an evacuation plan in place and make sure everyone in your family knows the plan.
- Follow local fire restrictions and obey burning bans.
- Help grow our fire-adapted community. This could include planning a Spring adventure with friends, family, or guests to a recent prescribed burn to look for morels or wildflowers, sharing one of the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project’s many great videos or blog posts, or helping neighbors understand the benefit of reducing fuels around their homes.
We as a community can adopt proactive approaches to ensure we are keeping ourselves and our fire fighters safe, by being responsible visitors of our public lands, and by making our own properties and neighborhoods more fire-resistant. We also can do more to support efforts that restore our forests to be resilient to a changing climate and associated risks, especially an increase in fire.
Taking the correct steps as individuals, as a community, and as stewards of our public lands can help all of us breathe easier when we see smoke on the horizon. So, when you see smoke from prescribed burning in the seasons and years ahead, talk to your friends about how those burns are so beneficial to our community’s and our forest’s future.
There are many resources available to inform our neighbors, help you protect your property, and to reduce our community’s risk from catastrophic wildfires. To learn more, visit:
• Resources section of DCFP website.
• Dr. Paul Hessburg’s TEDxBend Talk on Wildfires.
• Central Oregon Smoke & Fire Information.
• Deschutes County OSU Extension office: (541) 548-6088 or https://extension.oregonstate.edu/deschutes
In case you missed the forum, watch it here: https://cityclubco.org/march-forum-wild-fires/
Thank you, to all our participants for keeping us informed and continuing this conversation. As our interviewees stated, we all must be part of the solution. I encourage all City Club members to continue this conversation and spread the word.
Kym Tyson, Director of Operations at Schmid Malone Buchanan LLC
City Club Marketing Committee Member