The Dollar Lake fire: Forest Service was right to wait

The Dollar Lake fire: Forest Service was right to wait

23 September 2011

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USA — There’s no question that forest fires make for great headlines and catch everyone’s attention. Unfortunately, the hysteria surrounding wildland fires often leads to sensationalized narrative of the role fire plays in Oregon’s forests. On top of that, firefighting officials are often subjected to Monday morning quarterbacking regarding how fires are fought — their every move second-guessed.

This kind of reaction was highlighted in the Sept. 14 story “Agency gets grilling for Dollar Lake fire decision” (“Firefighter response to Dollar Lake wildfire in Mount Hood Wilderness area questioned by politicians and Parkdale residents” on

When a lightning storm rolls through the Cascades, it’s not unusual for there to be thousands of lightning strikes in a matter of hours — some sparking small fires. Most of these fires will never grow bigger than an acre, but a few might actually grow to several thousand acres or more. It’s extremely difficult to predict which ones are going to grow into big fires. The U.S. Forest Service has to make its best educated guess on which fires to attack with its limited resources. With the Dollar Lake fire, officials made the determination early on that it wasn’t safe to send firefighters and smoke jumpers into the area. That should have been the end of the story.

Instead, to fan the rhetorical flames, Rep. Greg Walden complained that the fire wasn’t put out quickly enough, resulting in a negative impact to weekend tourism in the Columbia River Gorge. Unfortunately, you can’t just snap your fingers and extinguish the flames, and we commend the Forest Service for keeping firefighter safety a higher priority than weekend tourism.

Of course, most of the criticism of how the Forest Service deals with fire comes from a long-held misunderstanding about the role fire plays in Oregon’s forests. Since time immemorial, fire has restored and replenished our forested landscapes. Fire is nature’s way of cleaning up and recycling the forests fallen limbs and brush, and creating the openings that deer and elk favor.

Can we let all fires burn unmanaged? With the extent to which we’ve built communities in and around forested areas, the answer is no. But, using the best available science, we can let wilderness fires burn and fight fires aggressively near communities. The Forest Service has full authority to use whatever means necessary to put out fires that start in wilderness areas if it is concerned it will threaten structures, private lands or communities.

The reality is that we simply don’t have unlimited resources to fight all fires all the time — nor has that approach proved effective. Most fire experts believe our penchant for trying to put out every fire is the primary reason for the unnatural buildup of fuels in some forests. Restoring fire to our forests will make them healthier and more resilient. Protecting the largest old-growth trees that are the most fire-resistant is critical.

When the finger-pointing over the Dollar Lake fire dies down, we’ll realize that the reality of forest fires rarely matches the hype. The Dollar Lake fire ended up not burning any structures, it didn’t touch Bonneville Power Administration power lines, it stayed off private lands, and it didn’t get into the Bull Run watershed, source of Portland’s drinking water. With cooler weather now settling in, it seems that the Dollar Lake fire has delivered thousands of acres of natural restoration on the northern flanks of Mount Hood.

One can hope that with each fire season, the sensationalism and Monday morning quarterbacking will fade and a thoughtful, measured conversation about the role of fire will continue into the future.

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