Wildfire season is upon us again throughout much of the country, accompanying drought conditions this year within the context of a megadrought throughout much of the West. Millions of acres of wildfires that burned in the western states last year clearly affirms the need for immediate, proactive measures to conserve our lands and communities. Towns and homes, wilderness areas, old-growth reserves, private timber-producing forests, scenery, wildlife habitat and watersheds all are destroyed in wildfires. But unlike so many natural disasters, we can take some very logical and simple steps to mitigate the occurrence and severity of future wildfires.
First and foremost is to reduce the number of unplanned and poorly located ignitions, and we put this one first as we approach the Fourth of July. Fireworks are a source of human ignitions throughout any year and have caused some major fires like the Eagle Creek Fire in my home state of Oregon in 2017. And most of the recent increase in wildfire ignitions have been in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and caused by humans. We can’t blame lightning for the surge in 21st-century wildfires — we are the problem.
Reducing human ignitions begins with awareness of this problem and changes in our behavior. Individuals, as a potential source of wildfire for which they will be held accountable, need to think carefully about when and where it is appropriate the light off fireworks. Both flaming and smoldering residue from fireworks (i.e. embers) can start a fire when they land in easily-combustible fuel under the right weather conditions. Fundamentally, that initial small blaze is mostly regulated by the amount of small, dry fuel pieces (e.g. dead grass) and wind that supplies oxygen and moves the heat. As a fire grows in size, then hillside slope, wind direction and speed, as well as total fuel availability increase in importance as the fire builds in strength.
We can drastically reduce ignitions in the WUI through a combination of fewer unintended ignitions (including fireworks), greater situational awareness when around dry fuels and under burning conditions, and proper supervision of the young or intoxicated. Individuals and families can do this on their own, neighborhoods and communities can cooperate on new incentives and policies, and/or state and federal policies and laws can step into the fray. This will be our choice as we face the increasing risks and consequences of wildfire. With freedom come responsibility.
Beyond reducing the number of unplanned ignitions in and around our human communities, we can improve the effectiveness of our response to any remaining ignitions. The three key provisions of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy apply to this concept:
1) well-prepared homes and communities
2) appropriate planning and resources for safe and effective responses
3) the creation and maintenance of fire-resistant and resilient landscapes in which we all live
Those interested in how to better prepare their homes and landscaping (No. 1 above) can refer to the FireWise program, which provides guidance on home fuel reduction/maintenance and ignition proofing. Neighborhoods should work together on these simple tasks since fire is extremely contagious among homes and properties, particularly in areas built at higher densities and when high winds are blowing.
Second, work with local fire departments and other authorities to understand their communication systems, response times and evacuation routes (No. 2 above). Homeowners and neighborhoods need to cooperate smoothly with authorities during an emergency rather than hinder them. We can thereby minimize the risk of repeating a tragic wildfire event like Paradise, Calif. in 2018.
Finally, we need to recognize the inevitability of wildfires and the impact they will have on all the wildland values we hold beyond our human communities: the forests and rangelands, wood/carbon, clean water, recreation, wildlife habitat, biodiversity and inherent beauty. Fire has always been part of these lands, functioning as a key ecological process; fire limits the amount and continuity of fuels, produces and maintains resistant and resilience structure and composition, as well as provides habitat for plants and animals along with a range of other ecosystem and cultural services.
Fires routinely burned millions of acres per year in North America prior to Euro-American settlement, but largely at low severity. We know this from the stories, from lake sediments, and from fire scars. However, fire exclusion and lack of land management has created this era of “megafires,” driven by impressive fuel accumulations and longer fire seasons. I see miles upon miles of fire-prone forests and rangelands, with homes and towns, power lines, forest roads, campgrounds and people all mixed in. On federal lands in Oregon, 90 percent of each year’s growth just accumulates on our hillsides, with a third of that biomass dying each year, waiting for ignition. We need to manage these lands as though our lives depend on them, because they do.
Forests have always been both gifts of natural beauty/bounty and where people worked and lived sustainably. A land ethic like Aldo Leopold’s accepts a wide range of land management activities done conscientiously. In that same spirit, our current landscapes can be re-made more resistant and resilient to wildfire with well-planned and -executed forest activities to conserve our lands. Many in today’s society view our wildlands as beautiful when untouched and destroyed by human activity. Such adherence to preservation leads to serious challenges in protecting our private and public forests and human communities from fire.
We the people are directly responsible for increasing wildfire risk, particularly with the recent expansion of ignitions in the WUI. The primary sources of those ignitions have been backyard debris burning, arson and equipment use, all of which can generate only a few sparks or embers much like fireworks. However, fireworks are a big issue around the July 4 holiday. Some of my colleagues have suggested the need for a “Suburban Smokey Bear” to inform the public of this new wildfire reality; Suburban Smokey would want you to be fully aware of the power and consequences embedded in that firework in your hand.
John Bailey is a professor in College of Forestry at Oregon State University, where he teaches silviculture and fire management. He and his students/research team explore the specifics of various fuels and forest restoration options, their effect on forest ecosystems and subsequent fire behavior, wildfire risk analyses and reduction strategies as well as post-fire ecosystem recovery and management.