Fire in Oregon’s forests: A study analysis

16 Feb

English: "Elk Bath" – A wildfire in ...I had expected this to be a very dense academic work since its subtitle bills it as a synthesis of current information,  and at times, it is. But I was also surprised to see that most of the information presented would be easily understood by the average reader. It’s mildly personally disappointing, as I was hoping to find a dense academic work (since OFRI publishes things just for me dontcha know), but it’s far outweighed by how much good can be done by making this information understandable to landowners and other non-specialists.

This publication spans everything from basics to specifics, predictive science to natural history. It begins by explaining a lot of things that I take for granted, and would imagine that many Pacific Northwesterners also consider common knowledge — the recent history of wildfire suppression policy, explanations of historical fire regimes, and the many dangers posed to the natural world by the interaction of the two.

Since not everyone lives in or comes from a place where wildland firefighting is basically a natural part of being 20 years old, I’ll elaborate. Much of the early chapters explain how an overly-aggressive fire suppression policy was borne out of devastating wildfires that happened as people colonized the American West. These policies were kept in place for about a century, which created conditions in our forests that are arguably even more dangerous than many of the fires themselves.

All forests belong to a particular historical fire regime, which is to say that fire is a natural part of the life cycle of forests. There are low-, moderate- and high-severity regimes, which sound like what they are. In a low-severity regime, large old trees might dominate a fairly dry area and fires might come through every 5 – 15 years, thus clearing out competing shrubs and maintain the dominion of the healthy old trees. In a high-severity regime, it might be natural for catastrophic fires to completely replace whole forests, but perhaps only once every 200 – 800 years. Historical records and natural history like the charcoal records of lakebeds can tell us what these historical regimes were like.

The problem is that a century of aggressively excluding fire from these places has profoundly changed them. The Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests east of the Cascades in Oregon are a great example. Fires come a long on a frequent basis and burn small understory plants, resulting in very low-intensity fires that did not pose danger to either the health of ecosystems or to valuable timber. But nowadays, many such forests are overgrown. Dead wood piles up, providing insane amounts of fuel to fires that would otherwise be docile, and creating ladders to take fire into the crowns of trees, where they race out of control and cannot be contained. So essentially, the better we got at fighting wildfires, the more dangerous they became when they did break out. Add to this the way timber harvest and grazing alter the fuels available for a fire, and it all equals a complicated and difficult problem to solve.

There’s a system to classify how far current conditions diverge from their historical fire ranges. Condition class 1 means that current fire regimes are generally within historical range of frequency and intensity. Class 3 means the current range isn’t even close to the historical and Class 2 is somewhere in between.

These changes have even altered succession, which is the process by which different types of vegetation compete and dominate an area, and how this changes over time. In other words, it’s how bare ground becomes a process, and what changes happen along the way. Different fire regimes basically impose different vegetative patterns on landscapes. A good example would be subalpine forests of Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana). Fires come through very rarely — think hundreds of years — and kill off whole stands of these thin-barked species with ease. If fire were more frequent in this area, these species might never become dominant since shrubs and herbs are better adapted to deal with the harsh conditions, and lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta) are quicker to establish after disturbances. In more temperate fir and hemlock forests, long intervals between fires are also a must; frequent fires would otherwise allow thicker-barked trees like pines to dominate because they are more likely to survive lower-intensity more frequent fires and gain the age / size that help them squash competitors.

Having worse fires in an ecosystem that is not adapted to survive them endangers homes, lives, ecosystems, valuable timber, and can cause all sorts of damage you might never suspect; it can degrade public drinking water systems, kill fish like salmon and trout that are already struggling to survive, alter cycles of disease in forests, and even permanently change what organisms are able to live in an area. Once basics concepts and proper context are established, this publication moves on to dealing primarily with these sorts of unexpected things — and the ways they can feed back into each other and the overall fire problem.

There is also discussion of how to address these issues. One thing echoed over and over by the various authors is that natural fire regimes are a great management template, and that encouraging resilient forests and landscapes should be the major goal. When we work within the confines of what has evolved to work, we can create more resilient forests and protect the things we value. It’s important to prioritize the wildland-urban interface — the area where people and nature meet — and then to begin working on Class 3 & 2 areas. No single approach will work, and it will not take care of itself.

And of course, nothing will work at all without getting communities involved. There is a good deal of discussion not only about how to engage the public in management efforts, but also why resource management professionals should care about public views and respect the different sorts of knowledge people have to offer. No template is presented, but a lot of thought-provoking ideas are offered, along with encouragement to remember that dialogue must always be two-way, even if it is informed by the best intentions.

While this was published in 2002, it’s full of relevant, useful information. An amazing amount of it, too, for such a short publication! I will try to write one or more posts that discuss some chapters in more specific detail in the near future.

4 Responses to “Fire in Oregon’s forests: A study analysis”

  1. theevolutionofeating February 17, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    You bring up so many interesting issues. It’s easy to get caught up in the “fire is bad” mentality because it can be such a direct threat, but that clearly isn’t the case.

    • xylem_up February 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

      It’s strange… as someone who studies this sort of thing, I can hardly believe that there are still people who don’t realize wildfire is often healthy. Good to get out of my bubble once in a while. 😉


  1. A thicket of trouble for forests « Xylem Up - June 29, 2012

    […] been a while since I posted about the synthesis report Fire in Oregon’s Forests, but I found some things I jotted down, and these ideas have been […]

  2. A tangle of trouble for forests « Xylem Up - June 29, 2012

    […] been a while since I posted about the synthesis report Fire in Oregon’s Forests, but I found some things I jotted down, and these ideas have been […]

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