The Smokey View from the Northwest

September 15, 2020

There are no clouds in the central Oregon sky today, but we are nonetheless living in dim times. With active wildfires on all sides of my home, we have some of the worst air pollution in the world.

It’s hard not to feel apocalyptic right now. In just four days, around 3 percent of western Oregon has burned, destroying hundreds of homes and other structures and forcing 80,000 people to evacuate. The good news is that it was not 500,000 people as reported in the media, but still, 80,000 is a lot, and many no longer have homes to return to.

I’ve been monitoring wildland fire policy for more than two decades, and this is the worst I have lived through. Still, this is far from a record year: though there have been lots of fires in the Northwest and northern California, fires are below average in southern California and much of the rest of the country.

One reason why we have seen bigger fires in recent years is that the Forest Service and other agencies have changed their firefighting tactics. For example, the Beachie Creek Fire near us was started by lightning on August 16. Located in a steep, inaccessible part of the Willamette National Forest, it smoldered on about 10 acres for ten days or so, then slowly increased over the following ten days to around 775 acres, then blew up, burning 132,000 acres in one ten‐hour period–meaning it torched three acres per second–destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least two people.

A few decades ago, the Forest Service would have dropped smokejumpers by parachute on August 16 or 17 and had them directly attack the fire. But too many burnovers killing entire crews has rightly made the agency more protective of the lives of on‐the‐ground firefighters. Instead, it risks the lives of helicopter and air tanker pilots, five of whom have already died this year, having them dump water and fire retardant on the fires. During three weeks, they spent well over a million dollars doing this on the Beachie Creek Fire with dubious results.

Even when fires don’t escape, the tactics today emphasize indirect attack, meaning backfires, instead of direct attack. The result is that far more acres are burned, many of them lit by the firefighters themselves. Thus, based on acres burned, we can’t really draw conclusions about whether climate change or other factors beyond our control is resulting in more fires.

There are several major schools of thought about fire policy. One is that climate change has made fires worse and so we need to stop using fossil fuels and completely change our lifestyles to reverse this. I don’t buy this, as both the historic and prehistoric record (using things like soil profiles and tree ring analysis) indicate that an average of about 1 percent of the West has burned every year for thousands of years. After accounting for changes in firefighting tactics, I don’t see any indication that more acres are burning today because of climate change.

(On the other hand, and contrary to many climate‐skeptic web sites, we can’t use the historic fire record to conclude that climate change isn’t happening either. The record shows that far more acres burned in the 1930s and 1940s than in the last few decades. What the record doesn’t say is that, in those years, the Forest Service opposed prescribed burning, which was widely practiced in the South, so it spitefully counted all acres of prescribed burning as wildfires.)

A second school of thought is that the 75 percent reduction in federal land timber sales between 1990 and 2000 is the problem, and if only we could increase timber cutting the forests would be healthier. The difficulty with this view is that timber cutting actually leaves forests more vulnerable to fire as it removes the big wood that isn’t very flammable and brings the fine wood and needles down from high in the air to the ground, where it is very flammable.

A third school of thought is that more than a century of fire suppression has allowed fuels to build up in the forests, making them more vulnerable to fire. This school calls for widespread fuel treatments, either physically removing the brush and small trees or burning them in place. In fact, wildland firefighting was never successful enough to have a significant impact on forest fuels. A Forest Service report several years ago concluded that the vast majority of western forests have not been ecologically changed by fire suppression.

The Forest Service currently spends $430 million a year on fuel treatments and Department of Interior and state agencies spend even more. Yet all the fuel treatments in the world aren’t going to save your house if firebrands from a lightning‐caused fire seven miles away are blown by 50 mile‐an‐hour winds to your cedar‐shake roof, which is what happened to many homes in Oregon last Monday.

My own view is that people in the West have to recognize that we live in a fire zone where roughly 1 percent of the natural landscape is going to burn each year no matter what we do. Instead of blaming these fires on public or private forest managers, we need to take responsibility to protect our own property and not rely on the Forest Service or other adjacent landowners to protect us.

That means the roofs and other parts of our our homes and other structures must be made of fireproof materials such as asphalt shingles, not cedar shakes. The walls can be wood, but our landscaping needs to follow defensible space or firewise principles so that, if it catches fire, it won’t generate enough heat to light structures on fire. The homes themselves should be at least 100 and preferably 150 feet apart so that, if one catches fire, the radiant heat from that fire doesn’t light up its neighbors.

Research by Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen has shown that such defensible space is both necessary and sufficient to protect structures from wildfire. It’s necessary because all the prescribed burning in the world won’t save your home if a burning ember from a lightning‐caused fire 8 miles away lands on your lovely cedar‐shake roof. It’s sufficient because it will protect your home even if neighboring forest landowners don’t do any prescribed burning or other fuel treatments at all.

This also means changing land‐use policies adopted in California and other western states that promote dense housing. Urban‐growth boundaries and zoning codes that mandate numerous homes on each acre even on urban fringes are asking for those homes to burn in wildfires. Cities need a buffer of low‐density homes on one‐acre lots to protect them from wildfires, and the lack of such a buffer is one reason why so many homes in Napa and other northern California counties have burned in the last few years.

If all homes and other structures in the wildland‐urban interface met defensible‐space standards, much of the $430 million that the Forest Service spends each year on hazardous fuels would not be needed, nor would much of the $2.5 billion or more that it spends on fire suppression.

Incidentally, the evacuation of 80,000 Oregonians should also alert transportation planners of the importance of having a good road network. Too many states and cities are trying to reduce road capacities. It’s called a “road diet” and it makes key evacuation routes unnecessarily congested. In 2018, a road diet in Paradise, California was blamed for the deaths of several people who were burned in their cars when they were stuck in traffic.

Before the Beachie Creek Fire blew up, the Forest Service posted a photo of two agency employees watching helicopters ineffectually dump water on the fire. The photo was titled “A Teachable Moment.” I hope the lesson we learned is that we need to take care of our own property and not depend on the government to protect us from natural wildfires that are beyond anyone’s control.


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