Grants Pass, Ore., USA — As firefighters in Oregon gear up for what looks to be another moderate wildfire season, some worry that agencies are still not keeping up with the larger problem of getting the forests back in shape to deal on their own with fire.
“I think the woods are growing faster than we are treating the problem,” said Bill Lafferty, fire program manager for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
A March report from The Nature Conservancy agrees. Based on the database known as LANDFIRE, it concluded that the thinning and prescribed burning projects on mostly federal lands around the state the past 10 years have not made significant progress in the forests that need to be treated with thinning and controlled burns to reduce fire danger.
“The general consensus is that conditions in our fire-prone wildland forest and woodlands are getting worse, not better,” the report said. “Over the long run, investments in fuels treatments and maintenance may be among the most cost-effective uses of the state’s limited wildfire protection resources.”
After 2002, when nearly 1 million acres burned in Oregon and nearly 7 million across the nation, the White House and Congress boosted efforts to treat forests.
In Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management have been treating 208,000 to 368,000 acres a year with thinning and controlled burns, the report said.
Given that Oregon has 34 million acres of forests and woodlands, and 91 percent of them need treatment, the amount of work has to increase more than three times over to get at the backlog of work, the report said.
Cathy Macdonald, conservation director for The Nature Conservancy, said better funding would help the Forest Service and BLM plan more treatments, and better markets for small trees would help pay for the work.
“I think there’s just been a lack of consensus of what we need to do,” she said.
One study of fire scars on trees estimated that 794,000 acres would burn in a typical year before settlers and the Forest Service started putting out fires, the report said.
The last time Oregon wildfires came close to that historical level was 2002, when nearly 1 million acres burned. Since then the acreage has been well below the 20-year average of 393,000: 161,000 acres in 2003; 26,000 in 2004, and 150,000 in 2005.
Even on the 2002 Biscuit fire, which burned through 500,000 acres, most of the area is not consumed. A satellite assessment by the Forest Service showed 19 percent of Biscuit was unburned, and 41 percent burned at low intensity, leaving green trees standing while clearing out brush and small trees.
The Forest Service acknowledges that a century of fighting wildfires has left many Western forests filled with brush and small trees that make big fires more likely, but the agency has yet to fully embrace the idea of restoring the natural role of fire in thewoods.
“That’s one of the corners we haven’t turned yet because, for a lot of reasons I suppose, when you have fire in the wildland the rules are you go and suppress the fire,” said Bonnie Wood, the agency’s Northwest executive director of the National Fire Plan. “We don’t yet have the social and political acceptability that our fire managers can size up a fire that is creeping around on the ground and say, `This fire is doing more good than not.'”
The Forest Service and BLM have been splitting treatment efforts between forests close to communities, known as the wildland urban interface, and the backcountry, said Wood. Treating the forests around homes is more difficult, and there are few markets for small trees and brush, even as biomass fuel, she said.
The wet winter and a cool spring have state and federal weather forecasters expecting a “normal” fire year in 2006. The ground and big trees and logs were saturated by winter rains. And the small branches and brush that spread a fire are not unusually dry.
“The most important element to consider is weather during the fire season,” said John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, which oversees firefighting efforts in Oregon and Washington.
Fires typically break out when a hot spell peaks and is about to cool down, he said. At that point, small branches and brush known as 100-hour fuels are dried out, and will quickly spread a fire. When a cold front passes, it brings lighting that can ignite a fire and wind that spreads the flames.
Longrange weather forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration call for average rainfall this summer, and slightly above average temperatures.