Wildfire apocalypse: Climate change vs. forest management

Chetco Bar Fire U.S. Forest Service video Chetco Bar Fire

A complex web of factors is responsible for Oregon's terrible, horrible, no good very bad fire season.


The spate of mega natural disasters is bringing new scrutiny to existing policies, practices and countermeasures. 

Hurricane Harvey called attention to the perils of overbuilding in a floodplain. And Oregon’s wildfire apocalypse raises questions anew about forest management and human-caused climate change. 

Are fires in Oregon intensifying because of poor forest management strategies?  Or are hotter, drier summers at fault?  

Letting go of either-or thinking is the first step in reckoning with the problem.

“The issue is complex,” says Mike Cloughesy, director of forestry for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. “Climate change plays a factor, and forest management plays a factor.” 

A growing body of research shows that over the past decade, Oregon’s fire season is starting earlier and lasting longer.

“The worry is the rains are starting later,”  Cloughesy says. “The data shows that.” Fires that used to begin in July are starting in June, and July fires are burning in August. "This indicates a climate change relationship."

But forest management also plays a role. Many have argued that wholesale logging bans, including failure to thin underbrush, has turned Oregon forests into powder kegs. 

Plus, fires that are quickly put out leave behind dry fuel, which can cause even more catastrophic conflagrations the next time the affected area burns.

Over the past ten years, collaborations between timber interests and environmental groups have focused on thinning as a solution to wildfires. These efforts yield clear benefits, Cloughesy says. 

“Where we have active management we do have less fuel." He pointed to the Millie fire in Sisters as an example. "That was burning like great guns, but where fuels have been reduced, the fire is greatly reduced."

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But underbrush isn't the only problem. Much of the Chetco fire near Brookings is blazing in a wilderness area.  “People say if there had been salvage logging things wouldn’t be so bad," Cloughesy says. "But we don’t know if that’s the case.”

Likewise, the Eagle Creek fire is burning on Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area land where logging is limited. But it's not clear the forest was overstocked. "This was driven by very hot, very dry conditions," Cloughesy says.

Most of the fires raging today were caused by lightning, a trigger that is separate from forest management or climate change, Cloughesy adds. 

Forest fires have become a lightning rod for political debates about climate change. But as Cloughesy suggests, a science-based approach focuses on the complex web of factors that are exacerbating conflagrations around the state.

Climate change advocacy groups agree with that assessment. Meg Ward, a spokesperson for Our Children's Trust, emailed the following statement about forest fire triggers.

“Whether a fire is naturally sparked by lightning (as hundreds are in Oregon each summer and most of the significant fires burning right now) or human caused (an equally large number usually from adults burning debris near their homes, illegal or untended campfires or tossing cigarettes), the results are now made worse by climate change-induced drought conditions and record-breaking temperatures.”

 

Linda Baker

Linda Baker is the editor of Oregon Business

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