OREGON – The most deadly, destructive and widespread catastrophic-scale forest fires in Oregon’s history erupted on Labor Day this year, driven by strong east winds.
Unless we change how our national and state forests are managed, these events will be just one more chapter in this age of predictable, increasing and ever-greater firestorms.
I spent my career studying forest fires and forest health. In a 2018 Daily Caller interview, a few weeks before the California Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, I said: “You take away logging, grazing and maintenance and you get firebombs.” Then someone took my quote, put it on a forest fire photo and posted it from the ruins of Paradise. The resulting meme quickly went viral on Facebook.
This September, Facebook began flagging this post as “partly false” because my quote, and related interview, didn’t mention climate change. That is because my documented predictions, based on significant research and personal experience, do not consider changing climate in order to be accurate.
History explains why public forests are unprecedented firebombs
What were once green trees filled with water, have now become massive stands of pitchy, air-dried firewood.
For thousands of years, ancestral Oregon Indian families kept ridgeline and riparian areas open for travel, hunting, fishing and harvesting purposes. They cleared ground fuels by constant firewood gathering, root harvesting and seasonal fires.
These actions created widespread systematic firebreaks in a beautiful landscape characterized by foot trails, grass prairies, southern balds, huckleberry fields, camas meadows, oak savannah and islands of mostly even-aged conifers.
Following the historic 1910 firestorms, the U.S. Forest Service established a nationwide network of fire lookouts and pack trails backed up by rapid response fire suppression. This system became remarkably effective over time.
From 1952 until 1987, for 35 years, only one forest fire in all of western Oregon was greater than 10,000 acres: the 1966 43,000-acre Oxbow Fire in Lane County.
But since 1987, the past 34 years, Oregon has had more than 30 such fires, with several larger than 100,000 acres.
The 2020 Labor Day fires alone covered more than 1 million acres, destroyed over 4,000 homes, caused 40,000 emergency evacuations, killed millions of wild animals, and thickly blanketed the state with an acrid, unsightly and unhealthy smoke for nearly two weeks.
The changes that increased catastrophic wildfire frequency
The problems began in the 1960s, with apparently well-intentioned national efforts to create large untouchable wilderness areas and cleaner air and water on our public lands.
The single biggest turning point in how public forests are managed happened on Dec. 22, 1969: about 50 lawyers in Washington, D.C. created the Environmental Law Institute, and a short distance away congress simultaneously passed the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
Next, the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) provided the growing environmental law industry with a way to be paid by the government for challenging nearly every attempt to log or otherwise actively manage public forests.
By the 1980s, the artificial creation of Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) and the listing of spotted owls as an endangered species laid the groundwork for today’s fires.
The 1994 Clinton Plan for Northwest Forests might have been the final nail in the coffin. The subsequent never-ending environmental lawsuits, new wilderness and HCP creations, access road decommissionings and fruitless public planning exercises have created tens of millions of acres of massive fuel build-ups and “let-it-burn” policies that have decimated our forests and wildlife.
A predicted result has been ever-larger for western Oregon forest fires. More than 90% of these large- and catastrophic-scale fires have taken place in federal forestlands, which represent less than 60% of Oregon’s forested areas.
You should be concerned about what will happen next in our forests
Even if — like Facebook executives — you believe these fires were somehow sparked by climate change, you should be very concerned with what will happen next.
Lessons from the 1902-1929 Yacolt Fires, 1933-1951 “Six-Year Jinx” Tillamook Fires and the 1987-2018 Kalmiopsis Wilderness Fires are clear: unless removed, the dead trees resulting from these fires will fuel even greater and more severe future fires.
The 2020 fire-killed trees should be strategically mapped, sold and harvested ASAP before they further deteriorate in value and increase in risk. Prices for Douglas fir logs are at record highs, and there is a great need for good-paying rural jobs and local building materials.
It will be interesting to see if we can learn from Oregon’s fire history and take the prompt, decisive actions needed to avoid the clearly predictable coming firestorms.
Bob Zybach has been program manager for educational nonprofit Oregon Websites and Watersheds Projects since 1996. He is the author of The Great Fires: Indian burning and catastrophic forest fire patterns of the Oregon Coast Range, 1491-1951. You may reach him at ZybachB@NWMapsCo.com