USA For many, the draw of the American West is rooted in its rugged land. In the Pacific Northwest, that can mean mountains and valleys draped in trees: verdant forests supporting not only rushing rivers but wildlife and local economies in some instances birthed by logging and the sale of timber.
Wildfire always was a hazard, driven by wind and hot summer weather but necessary for regeneration of plants, trees and soils. Over many decades, wildfire became a legitimate public concern, however, as growing communities amid the forests faced fires of increasing scale, frequency and intensity. Hotter, faster-moving fires were attributed to overgrown understory and forest floors left to woody clutter by fire suppression efforts, environmental protections that reduced logging, and most recently, extreme weather and warmer temperatures brought by climate change. All factors combine, along with historical weather cycles that align with wildfire, to make forests especially fire-prone. Four of the biggest fire seasons in the United States since 1960 occurred in just the last 10 years.
ew know the wildfire risk better than folks in Grant County. A year ago, lightning-ignited fires at Mason Spring and Berry Creek met to form the Canyon Creek fire. Whipped by wind, the fire became a monster. Forty-three homes were destroyed, along with barns, sheds and private forestlands decimated in value. Losses overall approached $10 million. The communities of John Day, Canyon City and Prairie City were hit hard.
Despite what might have seemed the perfect storm of tinderbox forest conditions and windy weather, however, the Canyon Creek fire should never have been a monster. In this deconstruction of the failed effort to battle the blaze by the U.S. Forest Service, Laura Gunderson and Ted Sickinger of The Oregonian/OregonLive document several management missteps. Their reporting calls into question the very capacity of the agency to maintain healthy, fire-resilient forests that are productive for business and recreational use while diminishing threats to nearby private lands.
Bungled communications among dispatchers and fire managers, and a tendency by fire managers to underestimate what the fire could become, are among the failures. Worse is the choice by Forest Service leadership to ignore its own written firefighting guidelines that require an adequate number of firefighting crews be present and ready to go. Instead, Malheur National Forest managers, who won extra federal funding to fight fires in 2015, sent to other settings three of their four 20-person crews in the days before the fire. Result: They left the Malheur insufficiently staffed. And they did so while hearing weather forecasts that would prove to be tragically accurate.
Nobody disputes that modern wildfire is beastly or that firefighting isn’t arguably the most dangerous occupation or that the best-laid plans sometimes go wrong. What goes beyond dispute is that the Forest Service, which oversees with the federal Bureau of Land Management more than half the state’s land, has a public responsibility to operate efficiently and accountably. It burned through more than $31 million to extinguish the Canyon Creek fire a whopping amount spent too late, leaving only damage and pain in its wake.
Significantly, Gunderson and Sickinger find the Forest Service had in 2003 identified the forests neighboring Canyon Creek as being at high risk for catastrophic fire. And the agency had wisely approved a project to thin out thick stands of trees, a strategy along with clearing the forest floor of downed timber, prescribed burning and habitat restoration to limit fuels available to wildfire. But as of late last year, crucial parts of the project remained uncompleted.
The Canyon Creek fire was just one among many wildfires claiming a portion of the more than 10 million acres of forests that burned in the U.S. in 2015. But it looms large in Grant County. It calls into question whether the Forest Service can do its job.
Congress has wrangled unsuccessfully with several proposals, some from members of Oregon’s delegation and most focusing on firefighting funding issues. But no amount of taxpayer money alone could ever be furnished to stamp out wildfire, a natural event that increasingly morphs into fast-moving walls of incendiary doom.
Yet Congress must act, and with a push from Oregon. It should ensure stable firefighting funding only to constituent national forests that configure firefighting strategies based in the latest science and set clear staffing guidelines and show proof it follows both. Congress should also stipulate that federal forests such as the Malheur lauded, ironically, as a model of collaboration among loggers, environmental groups and the Forest Service sharply step up the pace of the thinning, clearing and prescribed burning that can help make forests resilient.
It won’t be easy. Wildfire is protean. But as long as people settle the American West and find themselves in what specialists refer to as the “wildland-urban interface,” forest health must come first: for the public’s safety, for the businesses and communities that depend upon forest use, for the forest-situated water sources supplying towns and cities, for the well-being of all who value rugged lands in the first place.