In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s wildfire season across the West. Again.
Even the Wall Street Journal has taken notice in two stories – one about the godawful smoke we westerners are enduring and a second about soaring lumber prices, a nod to the fact that crews in the western United States and British Columbia are battling more than 150 wildfires.
Some 939,000 acres of British Columbia timberland have been scorched since early May, making this the worst wildfire year since 1958, but still chump change compared to the nearly 6.5 million acres burnt in the U.S. since last spring. Just for perspective, consider that the BC Fort McMurray Wildfires burned 2,400 homes, damaged countless others, and will cost insurers an estimated 3.6 billion dollars.
It will be another 6 to 8 weeks before our wildfire season winds down and the press packs up and goes home until next year. Meanwhile, our annual ritual continues: thousands of young men and women will take their positions on fire lines, helicopters armed with 700 to 2,600-gallon water buckets will target hot spots, and specially adapted fixed-wing aircraft – including a hulking 747, will swoop in at tree-top level to spread borate on 1,500-degree flames.
Great theater if you can stomach the cost: 1.7 billion taxpayer dollars in 2015. More this year, to say nothing of immeasurable long-term losses in watershed health, soil productivity, fish and wildlife habitat, and beautiful places that provide year-round outdoor recreation.
We have been following this unfolding calamity on Evergreen pages since 1986 – nearly 20 years before the Internet became our principal means of communicating with our audience.
Big wildfires are burning in California , Montana , Washington  and Oregon . Of these 13, one looms very large on our radar screen: the Chetco Bar Fire on southern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, now the top priority wildfire in the United States. It quadrupled in size in four days and blew past 100,000 acres on Tuesday afternoon. Its western-most flank is within four miles of coastal Brookings, Oregon. There are now more than 1,000 men and women on the fire lines. Evacuations have forced a delay in the start of the new school year.
A wet winter and spring do not assure a mild fire season. Water grows fuel.
We cut our forestry teeth on the Siskiyou, so we know about bit about its terrain, forest types and recent wildfire history. Chetco Bar is burning partly in the footprints of two earlier fires that made headlines: the 100,000-acre 1987 Silver Fire and the 2002 Biscuit Fire – at 500,000 acres and 800 square miles one of the largest in recent history, though only about half the size of the 990,000-acre, which burned southeast of Salem, Oregon in 1865.
Reburns are Nature’s way of removing the rubble that didn’t burn the first time. They are not uncommon in areas that get little or no follow-up treatment in the aftermath of big wildfires. Parts of the three-million-acre 1910 Fire – the largest in U.S. history – burned again in 1933. Now we are watching Chetco Bar clear away what did not get cleaned up following the Silver and Biscuit fires.
The fire is also burning in green timber, proving once again that even in moist coastal fires, big fires can do a lot of damage. The 1868 Coos Fire leveled 300,000 acres of old-growth Douglas-fir an hour north of Brookings in what is now the Elliott State Forest, a 93,000-acre money losing albatross the State Land Board voted to sell, then decided not to sell. Then, in 1936, a forest fire near coastal Bandon, between Brookings and Coos Bay, burned down most of the town after it torched several acres of gorse, an oily and highly flammable weed. Thirteen died in the inferno.
The common thread running through the Silver and Biscuit stories is the environmentalist-led outcry that accompanied Forest Service proposals for salvaging modest amounts of fire-killed timber – timber that is now fueling Chetco Bar. Long before the smoke had cleared following the Silver Fire, activist Andy Kerr – a press favorite because of his talent for memorable one- liners – declared that “salvaging dead timber was like mugging a burn victim.”
There was no peer-reviewed science to back Kerr’s claim, but there are scientists in southern Oregon who oppose salvaging dead, fire-killed timber, and did so following the 2002 Biscuit Fire, which left north of five billion board feet of standing dead timber within and outside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Logging is forbidden in Wilderness areas, but one post-fire study estimated that half what stood outside the Kalmiopsis could have been salvaged. My recollection is that less than one percent was removed by loggers.
Opponents have a long list of reasons for not salvaging: soil compaction, disrupting nutrient cycling and a desire to simply allow Nature’s evolutionary forces to take over. At this writing, those forces are four miles from a town of 6,500 and the Red Cross is setting up emergency shelters for those who live in harm’s way.
The history of successful post-fire salvage logging operations is long. In the early 1950s. the Forest Service logged the last of the western red cedar killed in the 1910 Fire. Cedar remains solid for decades following fire because chemicals in the wood repel insects and rot. Not so with most western softwoods which deteriorate beyond the point of usability in a few years.
Serial litigators know this, and they were largely successful in running out the clock on salvage logging that could have generated sufficient revenue to pay for replanting some 100,000 acres. Activists also opposed replanting, preferring the vagaries of evolutionary forces. It makes nice poetry, but it isn’t very practical in a world that depends on so many of the environmental and economic benefits that flow from well-managed forests.
Vocal opposition to salvaging Silver Fire timber losses so angered southern Oregon citizens that they took the then unusual step of organizing a public protest. The hastily organized August 27, 1988 Silver Fire Roundup drew some 1,600 logging trucks from five states and 10,000 cheering demonstrators to Grants Pass, Oregon.
Congress was subsequently obliged to approve the salvage of about half the fire-killed timber that stood outside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. More of what was not salvaged is burning now. So, too, are more nesting sites reserved for the northern spotted owl after the federal government listed it as a threatened species in June of 1990. One-fourth of the Siskiyou’s 202 nesting sites were destroyed in the Biscuit Fire. Scientists estimate that it will take 200 to 300 years for forests to overtake Biscuit brush fields that quickly colonized the burn area following the 2002 fire. Meantime, evolutionary forces are overtaking what was once one of the most beautiful and biologically diverse forests in North America.
And so the question that no one seems brave enough to ask aloud: what part of this or any National Forest should be reserved for these dark forces and what part should be reserved for people who simply want to take their kids and go camping on a weekend? Camping amid black sticks isn’t much fun.
East of Oregon’s Cascade Range, about four hours from Grants Pass, the odd-ball Milli Fire is burning near posh Black Butte Ranch and blucolic Sisters, Oregon. Odd because the lightning caused blaze, which started August 11 in the Three Sisters Wilderness, has exhibited some strange fire behaviors in its 11,000-plus acre run. Heavy smoke, winds blowing in the wrong direction and standing dead timber from an earlier wildfire not salvaged are undermining the best efforts of 675 firefighters. One state highway is closed, several rural hamlets have been evacuated, the start of the school year in Sisters has been postponed by choking smoke and more evacuations are expected in the coming days.
West near the summit of Mt. Jefferson, the lightning-caused Whitewater Fire has festered since July 23 – mostly allowed to run its natural course save for the Forest Service’s decision to allow the Freres Lumber Company to cut a 75 to 100-foot firebreak along the property line that separates its 1,400-acre Tree Farm from the Willamette National Forest and approaching Whitewater flames.
Freres Executive Vice President, Rob Freres, expressed his family’s heartfelt thanks to the logging crews and truckers who, over three days, removed more than 100 truckloads of company logs from the area to the Freres mill at Lyons.
“Firefighting policies in statutory Wilderness need to be changed,” Freres said in the aftermath. “All means necessary should be allowed to fight fires in Wilderness areas to minimize the size and exposure to future fires.”
The story these three fires tell is repeating itself in National Forests all over the West, again and again and again. Fire ecologists estimate that somewhere between 80 and 90 million acres are in Condition Class 3, meaning they are ready to burn, or Condition Class 2, meaning they soon will be ready to burn, I don’t believe these conditions are within a moonshot of what the public expects when it says it wants to “save” forests. We rarely save anything, including the organic soil layer in which all forest vegetation germinates. Searing heat usually reduces it to a waxy substance that water cannot permeate.
If you live in the “woowie,” the Wildland-Urban Interface, beware. The Forest Service’s ability to guard the no-man’s land between your homey sylvan hideaway and the adjacent National Forest cluttered with dead and dying trees is increasingly limited, and your property and casualty insurance company has noticed. Expect a policy cancellation notice soon.
What to do? We have many tools for reducing the risk of wildfire in National Forests that have moved beyond their ability to maintain their own natural resilience. Of these, the most reliable are thinning and prescribed fire – the use of intentionally-set fires that consume woody debris accumulations now measured in hundreds of tons per acre. In some National Forests, debris is now so deep that game trails have been obliterated. Experience has taught us to thin first, then reintroduce fire. The reverse process – fire first – is akin to waving a burning match over an open can of gas.
Forest Service landscape ecologist, Paul Hessburg, believes we have no more than 25 or 30 years in which to restore natural resiliency in National Forests that have grown too dense to sustain themselves. He is educating the public about managed forests and managed fire – fighting fire with fire – by allowing some big fires to do the cleanup work we can’t or won’t do.
The technique, which has been used occasionally, is controversial. Safety concerns are a big factor, but others suggest that managed fire is simply a sign that the Forest Service lacks the will to thin more aggressively. But we are seeing evidence that the Forest Service is willing to move faster. So, too, are many in Congress, especially House and Senate members from western states that hold most of our country’s National Forests. Congressionally-blessed stakeholder collaboration and Good Neighbor Authority [GNA] are good signs.
GNA permits the understaffed Forest Service to partner with state forestry agencies to increase the pace and scale of National Forest restoration work. The project selection process is, itself, collaborative, meaning that stakeholder groups with very different values and interests are encouraged to work together. And low and behold, interest groups that squabbled with one another for decades have found common ground in their shared desire to pull at-risk forests back from the brink of ecological collapse.
Hessburg asked us to consider a timely question when we interviewed him last year. “How do you want your smoke,” he said. “Do you want it to hang in the air all summer, or would you prefer smaller and more frequent doses.”
What he is saying is that smoke from forest fires is now a fact of life in the West. But we can choose small doses if we’ll support forest restoration programs that add managed fire to the thinning-prescribed fire equation. We’d prefer smaller, more frequent doses in the spring and fall, and we suspect most westerners would agree with us if asked.
Hessburg isn’t the only PhD forest scientist who has weighed on the question of what to do about ecological collapse in western National Forests. Evergreen board member, Mike Newton, a PhD botanist and the finest silviculturist we know, has suggested that any number of thinning techniques can be used to better manage federal forests. His own marvelous Tree Farm west of Corvallis, Oregon attests to what is doable by simply replicating Nature. There are trees the size of old-growth Douglas-firs that he and his wife, Jane, planted in the early 1960s. Read more in our interview with Mike: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Although Douglas-fir grows best in full sunlight and regenerates fastest in clear-cuts, Mike is enough of a scientist to realize that one-size-fits-all management prescriptions are no more than prescriptions for failure. We must work with what the land gives us, which varies widely with climate, soil productivity, moisture, elevation, aspect [the direction the forest faces in relation to the sun] and tree species.
Not all forests grow at the same rates or do well under the same conditions. But within reason, science-based forestry allows us to create or maintain forest environs that favor desired future conditions. Hence the question we so frequently ask: “What do you want from your forest?”
Evolutionary forces don’t ask this question. We get what we get. Hope you like it.
Congress still needs to deal forcefully with serial litigation sponsored by those who favor evolutionary forces and don’t give a damn what the rest of us want or need. Forcing the evolution crowd to arbitrate their differences with other forest stakeholder groups is one idea. “You bring your best idea to the table and we’ll bring ours, and we’ll let three arbitration judges decide which idea best meets the objectives enumerated in the Forest Service’s five-year plan.”
Another idea would be to simply exclude federal land management from the provisions of the Equal Access to Justice Act. EAJA was never intended to be used as serial litigators use it. I’ve lost track of the number of Forest Service restoration projects have gone up in smoke and flame while the agency awaited a federal court decision.
On our pages, we have long advocated for tribal forestry; and indeed, we think federal land managers could learn a few things by simply observing how tribes protect cultural, spiritual, environmental and economic values in their own well-managed forests. Congress seems to gasp the basics of tribal forestry because they’ve granted tribes the authority to thin trees from diseased federal lands that are endangering tribal forests.
Why not extend the same protections to the National Forests? Does the evolutionary crowd have that much political power? Whatever happened to the time-honored principle that federal lands should be managed for “the greatest good for the greatest number?” Are most Americans willing to stand by while Nature burns the West’s national forests to the ground? Fat chance.
If I have learned nothing else over the 31 years since Evergreen’s founding, I have learned that Nature doesn’t give a damn about civilization’s needs or wants. Nature is. Period. If you think otherwise, Google InciWeb – the federal land management system for reporting daily wildfire activity in the U.S. It is a sobering exercise that underscores the urgency of the forest health crisis we face in the western United States.
When our northern Idaho skies are unbearably smoky, I think back to a lovely October morning in 1996, when, at Alan Houston’s invitation, I joined him on a nature walk on the Cumberland Plateau a few miles east of Grand Junction, Tennessee. Alan is a PhD wildlife biologist and the long-time manager of the Ames Plantation – a century-old farming and forestry tour de force on the edge of town.
We were walking in the direction of an enormous black oak he wanted me to photograph when, suddenly, he turned and said something so profound that I can repeat it from memory.
“When we leave forests to Nature, as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever Nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times. But with forestry we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in Nature.”