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The Wildfire Conundrum: Climate Effect

November 20, 2015

Editor’s Note: The Wildfire Conundrum is a collaboration between the journalism nonprofit InvestigateWest and Jefferson Public Radio. Part two looks at the connections between forest health, wildfire and climate change.

Conventional wisdom says forests in the West are overstocked and need to be thinned to prevent “catastrophic” wildfires. But some researchers say focusing on reducing fuels downplays a greater and growing driver of wildfire: climate change.

When I visit Darren Borgias at his office in Medford, he shows me a colorful poster that illustrates what the ideal dry, southwestern Oregon forest looks like. And historically, he says, this ecosystem was nurtured and maintained by fire.

“What we’ve lost, over a hundred years of fire exclusion, is the portion of the landscape that supported open, sun-dappled woodland and forest,” said Borgias, who is with the non-profit Nature Conservancy. Borgias says putting fire back to work on the landscape is a key part of a restorative approach to forestry.

“We’re setting the stage for the return of fire," he said. "To a large extent, we anticipate that’s going to be planned, controlled burns, conducted at times when we have the highest certainty that we’ll get the outcomes that we need and that the burn can be conducted safely.”

The Nature Conservancy is one of several partners in a 10-year program to restore ecological balance to nearly 8,000 acres of mountain forest next to Ashland, Oregon. By thinning excess growth that historically would have been cleared out by natural forest fires, the project hopes to head off a severe fire that could endanger the town’s water supply, as well as its tourist economy. Borgias says the same principles could be scaled up to apply across larger landscapes – for instance, the Rogue Basin.

“We have a draft strategy out now that shows about 2.1 million acres that should be treated for a variety of reasons and for a variety of objectives,” Borgias said.

This idea has gained wide currency, and the U.S. Forest Service has identified tens of millions of acres across the West as needing treatment.

But some researchers aren’t sold on this model. Dominick Dellasala, the chief scientist at the Ashland-based Geos Institute, a non-profit that deals with climate change, agrees that fire is a crucial element in maintaining healthy forests. But, he says, the data don’t support the idea that a buildup of forest fuels is the problem.

“If fuels were contributing to more forest fires and more severe fires, that’s what we would be seeing in the West. We are actually in a deficit of fire severity and fire acres in most of the West compared to historical times,” Dellasala said.

Dellasala points to records that show the number of acres burned in the  West in the early 20th century was as high or higher than in recent years. Those numbers dipped mid-century, then started picking back up in the 1980s. Levels now are back on par with those of a hundred years ago. But something's different.

“We now have a climate signal that’s driving fire behavior,” Dellasala said.

“More and more fires are responding to climate; extreme weather events, drought, high winds, high temperatures. That is going to override any fuel treatments that we do on the ground."

Rather than try to reduce fire across the landscape, Dellasala says we should learn to co-exist with it.

“Co-existence involves letting more of these fires safely burn in the backcountry, and focusing on protecting lives and homes. Logging in the backcountry does not help.”

He notes that using fire-resistant building materials and clearing trees and brush from around a house improves the odds of it surviving even a severe fire to better than 90 percent. He says co-existence with fire also means thinking twice about where we build.

“Just like we don’t build on top of a volcano, or we don’t build in a flood plain, we need to really look at some tighter land use restrictions, because we’re setting people up, and homes up, for future fire effect,” Delasella said.

Wildfires may not be at historic high levels, but the cost of fighting them certainly is. For the first time ever, this year, the Forest Service spent more than half its budget on firefighting. And one main driver of that expense is the need to protect lives and property as development pushes further into the woods.

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Dominick Dellasala is chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon.

Courtesy of Dominick Dellasala