James McIver, Union County Progressives/Democrats

R ecent deadly wildfires in California remind us that we also live in a fire-prone ecosystem and that we would be wise to do everything we can to ensure that wildfires don’t enter our communities. But what can we really do about them? In this opinion piece, I’ll talk about wildfires from the perspective of a scientist who lives in a fire-prone ecosystem, outline a couple things we can do and emphasize the need to work together.

Climate is changing, becoming mostly warmer and drier, and this sets the stage for longer and more intense fire seasons. So why not just continue to suppress wildfires, like we have for the past 80 years? We have the best firefighters in the world, and they extinguish more than 95 percent of ignitions every year before they grow to more than a few acres. Yet, unfortunately, each year some fires get away, mostly because they ignite under the most extreme weather conditions, and they quickly become too dangerous to suppress.

These are the fires that burn by far the most acreage and that pose a threat to rural communities in the interior western U.S. How can we better protect ourselves from these increasingly dangerous wildfires?

We can’t control the weather, but we can decrease human-caused ignitions, and most important, we can reduce fuels. Using prescribed fire and machines, we can reduce surface fuel that contribute most to wildfire behavior.

Communities such as La Grande sit in the regional landscape like an island in a sea of forest. The scale of the problem in that forest is too vast for us to effectively reduce fuel everywhere using prescribed fire and machines. Yet if we concentrate our fuel reduction efforts in the land immediately surrounding our communities, and give nature more of a hand in managing the “sea of forest,” we’ll have our best chance of avoiding a catastrophic wildfire in our midst.

Fuel reduction can effectively reduce risk in the land around towns through a combination of logging and prescribed fire. If we harvest smaller trees and leave mostly larger pine and larch, we’re removing stems that are most susceptible to being fuel for a wildfire. If we combine this with prescribed fire to consume logging slash, we create stands that can best moderate wildfire behavior. How do we accomplish this? Timber itself cannot pay for the fuel reduction effort because the most valuable timber has already been removed from the forest. Instead, federal land managers have enhanced authority, under the Agricultural Act of 2014, to enter into “stewardship contracts” with local businesses that can remove trees and reduce fuels.

While funding is required for these contracts to work, compared to the amount of money spent on wildfire suppression every year, we could fuel-treat the entire wildland-urban interface around La Grande for a fraction of the cost it would take to defend the city from a wildfire.

In addition, we can give nature a bigger, safer role by allowing more “cool” fires to burn. Federal agencies lead firefighting
efforts and since 2009 have been given enhanced authority to use firefighting crews to reduce landscape fuels, especially on cooler, more manageable, early season fires. If we gradually begin to shift firefighting efforts to manage these cooler fires, letting them do more of the fuel reduction work, we will eventually create enough burned patches in the forest around us to slow down or render wildfires less severe, before they reach wildland-urban interfaces.

I suspect these ideas might be controversial, but if we build trust among all stakeholders, with the goal of reducing wildfire risk to our communities, we will have the best chance of avoiding the fate of many western U.S. towns that have experienced recent loss of property and life. In my view, we have little choice, especially living in a fire-prone ecosystem that’s part of a warming world.

James McIver is a Senior Research Associate Professor at Oregon State University Eastern Agricultural Research Center and lives in Union