Want to prevent megafires? Let forests burn

- Dec 09, 2018-

“To let fires burn in July and August is ridiculous.” — Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus in the New York Times, Sept. 22, 1988

Rich Fairbanks walks a forest trail through a stretch where two wildfires have burned in the last six years.

The ground is mostly bare, and the tree trunks are striped with black, scorched bark.

Fairbanks has worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter and as a wilderness advocate. He is thrilled by all this. He points up at the green crowns of the trees with delight.

“Some beautiful hardwoods in here!” He exclaims. “Look at those canyon live oaks – really nice! They all made it.”

Last summer, the woods were on fire to the right of this trail in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which straddles southwestern Oregon and northern California. But the flames died out soon after crossing the path  when they reached a part of the forest that had already burned in 2012. The old fire had taken out all the plants and brush that would have served as fuel.

“What they had was a very gentle kind of fire,” Fairbanks said. “It just all around was a good fire in many ways.”

This may sound like an odd way to talk at a time when catastrophic wildfires are burning throughout the arid West, literally causing death, widespread destruction and choking smoke that hangs like a funeral shroud over many communities.

But a variety of forest experts say that one of the best ways to reduce the threat of these mega-blazes is to use fireitself. They say we need to increase the pace of prescribed fire and let some wildfires continue to burn when it’s safe to do so.

Of course, there’s not nearly as much political support for letting fires burn as there is for putting fires out.

“Our knowledge of fire proceeds forward, and there’s always a lag between what we know and what the general public understands,” Fairbanks said. “And even lagging behind that is what the politicians are willing to act on.”

The politics of a smoky future

John Bailey, a forestry professor and fire expert at Oregon State University, said contrary to what Smokey Bear and the U.S. Forest Service once told us, “there is no smoke-free future” in western U.S. forests. We either use fire as a tool to help clear out the dense undergrowth, he said, or we wait for it to be done by explosive wildfires driven by the worst weather conditions.

“If you make me king and I’m able to control the future,” Bailey said, “I’ll burn thousands of acres at a time. Just burning hundreds of acres isn’t going to get us ahead of this program. It’s still going to leave wildfire doing most of the work.” 

In practice, that’s harder to carry out, in part because politicians who represent fire-prone regions are reluctant to tell their smoke-weary constituents that there sometimes needs to be more fire in the forest.“Our members of Congress know that overall the public doesn’t like to breathe smoke,” said Andy Stahl, who heads Eugene-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The public doesn’t like to feel 

threatened. The public thinks firefighters are heroes, and they want the fires put out.”

Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, represents eastern and southern Oregon. He is well-versed on wildfire issues. 

He said fire can indeed be “a management tool when appropriately applied.” But in an interview with OPB, the Republican lawmaker was quick to raise several caution flags.

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