By Barbara Cervone, 5.2.2
Here in Southern Oregon, building fire resiliency for the summer ahead begins the winter before.
Wildfire worry, however, runs year round.
However hot the fires are burning, the statistics are chilling. In the last 20 years, on average, the number of square miles burned annually across Oregon, California, and Washington has increased sixfold compared with the average between 1950 and 2000. Oregon had its worst wildfire season in 2020, with over a million acres burned.
Why are wildfires getting worse? The simplest version goes like this.
For more than a century, we removed fire’s historic role in our forests by suppressing natural fires. Indeed, we prohibited the first managers of much of our forest lands, Native American tribes, from lighting the small fires they knew by experience promoted ecological diversity and reduced catastrophic wildfire risk.
By suppressing fires, we threw our forests out of balance and caused an abundance of overgrowth. And when wildfires occur in overgrown forests, they are larger and more intense, putting plants, animals, and communities all at risk.
“More than 50 years of fire ecology have taught fire managers that suppressing all fires results in unnatural fuel buildup and only delays the inevitable,” writes the National Park Service.
Then add heat, drought, and wind.
Today’s hotter, drier conditions add fuel to the fire, drying out overgrowth and making forests even more flammable. 2020 delivered the hottest summer on record in Oregon. In Southern Oregon, from mid-June to the end of August, temperatures ranged from the mid-90s to a record-breaking 112 degrees. Thirty-five days registered 95 degrees and above, erasing “mild” from the Pacific Northwest’s weather lexicon.
In Oregon, August 2020 was also the driest in 127 years.
The headlines have become familiar: “Sights of ash and smoke once again greeted residents of Washington and Oregon over the weekend as more than a dozen large fires burned through the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.” (FOX Weather, 9.22.20) 2020 Almeda Fire that swept through nearby Talent and Phoenix was preceded by red flag wind warning predicting gusts up to 50 mph.
Faced with what seems like a perfect (fire) storm, forest ecologists now talk about “fire-adapted” forests — forests that can support and endure low-intensity fires rather than succumbing to the high-intensity fires that scorch everything in their wake.
Since 1947, researchers have been surveying Pacific Northwest forests by air, one thousand feet above the tree canopy, looking for noticeable damage to trees and relaying the intensity of damage and location to agencies who need this information. One pilot likened it to an annual physical, “with the patient appearing sicker and sicker as the years pass.”
On the ground, forest managers have sharpened and expanded their two-fold arsenal for building fire resiliency: controlled — or prescribed — burns and thinning.
Controlled burns, paired with favorable weather, rid a forest of dead leaves, tree limbs, and other debris; they are also rejuvenating, returning nutrients to the soil along with additional sunlight and open space. Thinning removes slower-growing or defective trees to provide more space for the remaining trees to grow.
“If we don’t burn it when we can control it, it will burn when we can’t,” explains a wildland firefighter with the Oregon Department of Forestry.
For more than ten years, Ashland’s Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project (AFR) — a collaboration among the U.S. Forest Service, the City of Ashland, The Nature Conservancy, and Lomakatsi Restoration Project — has conducted controlled burns and thinned overcrowded forests in the mountains above Ashland, remediating by hand over 12,500 acres. This time of year, thin plumes of smoke rise here and there from thick stands of Douglas Firs.
(The first time I saw a thread of smoke high above the woods behind our house, all I could think was: “Don’t tell me our house is going up in smoke only two weeks after we moved in!” Later I signed up for the system that alerts citizens to the location and time of prescribed burns.)
Touring the Ashland Watershed
I have walked the trails above Ashland for five years now, a far better landscape than the subways stops of lower Manhattan I left behind. I’ve memorized the inclines and switchbacks on the trail my husband and I hike almost every day.
Until now, though, I knew little about the densely forested 15,699-acre Ashland Watershed that supports these trails. The Klamath-Siskiyou Forests ecoregion of which the Ashland Watershed is a part, I have learned, is the most biologically important temperate forest ecoregion in all of western North America, in terms of concentrations of endemic species (i.e., found nowhere else in the world) and ancient lineages. It ranks as one of the four richest temperate coniferous forests in the world.
Prodded by the “Firewise” coordinator for our homeowner’s association, I recently explored a speck of the watershed, joining a small public tour linked to a controlled burn and thinning project on 42 acres of private land above town. Both legal and carefully planned and executed, the project involved more thinning than the norm, making some wonder if it wasn’t a logging operation in disguise. (It wasn’t.)
Two local forest ecologists, Joseph Powell (who has worked in just about every logging state in the country) and Robert Sanchez, outreach coordinator, led our small group. Don Hamann, a forestry contractor with five decades of experience, joined us. We parked at the trailhead of Ashland’s popular White Rabbit Trail and descended into the forest, soon reaching a clearing where the watershed, with its mountains and Douglas Firs, tumbled down in every direction.
Overgrowth, drought, and heat
“I’d like to call your attention to the hillside and dense forest across the way, including the red and dead trees,” Powell said. “Dense forests are not necessarily healthy, especially in a dry-climate ecosystem.”
I’d done some homework the night before, learning that the forests we see today look nothing like the ones 150 years ago. The best word to describe those forests is patchy, with trees of all ages interspersed with meadows, providing a natural mechanism to prevent large destructive fires which spread like, well, wildfire. Fire suppression, as we now know, was more foe than friend.
Powell explained that the land in Southwest Oregon with it’s annual average rainfall can only sustain around 50 trees per acre. “Alas, we have hundreds of trees per acre and years of below average rainfall,” he said.
Worse yet, he continued, “in densely packed forests like this, 40 percent of the rainfall never reaches the forest floor.”
Drought’s effects are barely visible at first, Powell explained. They unfold slowly at a cellular level, as trees reduce water loss and hydraulic failure by closing the stomata that allow them to breathe and grow. Extreme heat hastens the process.
“Remember the heat dome here back in June 2021, when temperatures hit 117 degrees and stayed that way for 48 hours,” Hamann asked. “What did we do? We turned up the AC, we reached for water. What did the trees do? They baked.”
It is stunning to think that in these years of reduced precipitation, trees in Ashland’s watershed may go seven months without a drink.
Our forest walk soon revealed a more immediate and devastating challenge. When it comes to the Douglas firs, which make up two-thirds of the trees in the Ashland Watershed, death by insect poses a greater threat than death by drought or fire.
Trees stressed by heat and drought are not only fuel for fire but also a bonanza for insects — beetles and borers — which can infest a whole tree, the top, or individual branches.
We entered a section of the trail where the damage was palpable: small groups of dead and dying Douglas firs, trees whose needles were fading from green to reddish brown before dropping off, trees whose cracked bark oozed sap and where exit holes on the bark surface indicated that adult beetles had emerged and left for another green tree.
“There’s a huge story here,” Powell said.
A recent study from Oregon State University and the US Forest Service determined that a half-inch wood-boring beetle called the flatheaded fir borer (Phaenops drummondi) was the likely culprit behind the dieback that surrounded us.
Researchers called it “Firmaggedon.” From 2015 to 2020, they found, more than 250,000 Douglas firs died in the region due to the beetle, more than the previous four decades combined. Trees already weakened by intense drought were the victims. The stress from drought had made the trees vulnerable and the insects finished them off.
The study did more than link drought and beetles, however. It also linked a third factor to both: location. The prevailing theory is that wildfires have cleared the way for Douglas-fir trees to take root in new places, specifically lower elevation, hotter, drier areas. The largest number of dead Douglas firs were found by the researchers at sites that are between 1,312–4,593 feet in elevation. The Ashland Watershed matches this range and Douglas firs make up the majority of the forest.
When I asked Powell what the future held, he said “smarter people than I are reserved in making predictions,” but he continued: “The dominant notion is that most of the Douglas Firs in Southern Oregon below 4000 feet elevation, perhaps up to 95 percent, will die off in the next five to ten years due to the beetle infestation.”
What will take their place? “The silver lining,” added Powell, “is that nature is showing us the way to go. With the beetle infestation, nature is thinning the forest to stocking levels closer to what the Indigenous people before us maintained. All we need to do is be proactive and remove the coming fuel load before a fire does.”
Adaptation and hope
Our walk-through ended at the acreage where Powell and his team had been burning, thinning, and carting away overcrowded trees — the activities that had alarmed some locals. Smoke lingered from several burn piles, but the job was largely finished. The spaciousness among the trees that remained was striking. Here, the sunlight hit the forest floor. One could imagine the soil rejuvenation to come. The Douglas firs here would escape the Phaenops drummondi.
We hear increasingly today about “adaptation” in today’s discussions about negotiating climate change. We, along with our forests, must adapt and, better yet, grow resilient: replacing fossil fuels with electricity, investing in green infrastructure, relocating to higher ground as sea levels rise, building water storage systems, and so much more.
As I hike the trails in the watershed behind me, I am reminded that the planet does not care whether we care — only whether we act, and act quickly.
In a recent video produced by the Ashland Fire Resiliency Project, Forest Division Chief Chris Chambers set the bar: “Our ask to the community is to fully support our fire management services, to begin unravelling the last 150 years of fire history.”
Am I hopeful? Why are hope and optimism crucial for fighting climate change, whether it involves 15,699 forested acres about a small city in Southern Oregon or melting in the Arctic?
For me it’s simple. Hope galvanizes us into action. It focuses on the things that are going right, on the solutions that are already taking hold. It’s human nature to focus on the problem, but it feels so much better to focus on the solution.