The worst of this year’s wildfire season appears to be over, but it has been another tough year. The Bootleg Fire scorched 413,000 acres in Southern Oregon before it was contained and, at one point, it was the largest wildfire burning in the United States. This summer, cities in Southern and Central Oregon were socked in by wildfire smoke for weeks. Last year, Portland had the worst air quality in the world for a few days in September after the Labor Day fires. Is this the new normal? Chris Dunn is a research associate in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. He joins us to talk about the future of wildfire.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. The worst of this year’s wildfire season appears to be over, but it has been another tough year. The Bootleg Fire scorched over 400,000 acres in southern Oregon before it was contained. At one point it was the largest wildfire in the US. This summer, cities in southern and central Oregon were socked in by wildfire smoke for weeks on end. One year ago after the Labor Day fires, Portland had the worst air quality in the world for a few days. But there is no indication any of this is going to change for the better any time soon. So what does the future hold for wildfires and for smoke, and for fire suppression policy? Chris Dunn is a research associate in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. He joins us to talk about this. Chris Dunn, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Chris Dunn: Thank you David. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Miller: It’s great to have you on. Part of your professional focus is in wildfire risk assessment. What does that entail?
Dunn: So, with wildfire risk assessments, we’re really trying to understand the long term trends in fire occurrence and their intensity, as well as their impacts to the values that we, as citizens place on our landscapes.
Miller: What are you taking into account as you do those assessments?
Dunn: Oh a great deal of information. From the fire hazard side, which is really quantifying fire behavior and the likelihood of fire, we take into account the varying climatic regimes present here in the Pacific Northwest, as well as more localized fire weather conditions, the topographical conditions that these fires maybe burning under, as well as the fuel conditions out there across our wildlands.
Miller: In the biggest picture, it seems like, in the American West, wildfire seasons are getting longer and more severe, meaning a higher number of very, very destructive fires every year. Is that likely to continue for the foreseeable future?
Dunn: Yes, sir. All indications are that this trend will continue going into the future, as we continue to realize the negative consequences of a rapidly changing climate.
Miller: Is there some point where we could expect to see a plateau where, for example, the built up fuels would be exhausted?
Dunn: Well that is a potential far into the future, particularly in the dryer forest environments, where the product productivity or the reaccumulation of fuels is much slower. And as we burn off those fuels, clearly it’s going to take some time to redevelop those. Here in the western Oregon side, where I reside out of Corvallis, we see much higher productivity in our forest and a much more rapid accumulation of those fuels again. And so that effect will be diminished here in the west side.
Miller: When you look at a map of Oregon in particular, what are the areas that give you the most concern in the coming years?
Dunn: Southwest Oregon is always of highest concern in my mind. We’ve observed for, well, really for millennia at this point, but even more recently in the last 20 years, very large fires occurring within the southwest Oregon region. It’s not exclusive to that by any means. We see other hotspots, like areas around Warm Springs Reservation, the northern end of the Deschutes National Forest, as other real fire hotspots. And then trailing from their back down to southwest Oregon within the Cascades, such as the Umpqua National Forest east of Roseburg, as another fire hot spot here in the state.
Miller: In other words, of places in previous years, and as you noted, going back a long time that have been burning a lot recently, those are the places you expect to see some of the highest risk for huge burns going forward? More of the same?
Dunn: Undoubtedly more of the same. When I think about southwestern Oregon, I think about California a lot, because of its close proximity and similar ecotype that we see in northern California, and just the sheer abundance of fires that continue to exceed our fire management services capacity to suppress
Miller: How much overlap is there, if we instead of thinking about a map of wildfires, think about a map of areas affected severely by smoke. Is it the same areas?
Dunn: Well, in many respects, yes, it is. The Rogue Basin is one of those areas in the nation that accumulates smoke from a broad broad region. So when fires are occurring in the less populated northern California regions, they often put smoke into the Rogue Valley. When fires are occurring north, on the Umpqua National Forest, smoke drifts into the Rogue Valley, and similarly along the southern coast range as well. And so they’re really prone to fire dumping smoke into that basin from a real broad region, which creates a real broad land base that can be the source of that smoke reach in that region.
Miller: Let’s turn to larger policy questions here, because they’re crucial. For decades now, forest service managers and other fire related policy makers, they’ve talked about the need to let more fires burn more wildfires burn, especially in shoulder seasons, meaning not in the middle of August maybe, and to do more prescribed and controlled burns to safely get rid of some of the overstocked fuel. But it still seems that fire suppression, putting out the vast majority of fires quickly, is the dominant paradigm. How do you explain that?
Dunn: Yes, that is most certainly the dominant paradigm. To be clear, we do want a very effective fire suppression organization. We want our communities protected. We want many of the values we have across the landscapes protected. The problem is that we tend to react and respond thinking about the short term, the single event today, needing to suppress it to protect those values. But when we look at the long term trends of what is most likely to contribute to that success, it really is more fire on the landscape, reintroducing fire either on our terms or on those terms that nature has provided to us, and starting to accumulate that to make our fire management decisions more effective going into the future. And so we start to think about trends over decades or centuries, and it really changes that perspective.
Miller: You mentioned the need for more fire in the landscape. OPB’s environmental reporter, Tony Shick wrote a few years ago that top fire scientists say the West needs to burn at about five times the current rate if we want to reduce our risk of extreme fires, massively destructive fires. Do you see the political will for anything close to that level of, of wildfires that people will let burn and for controlled burns?
Dunn: Right now, the political will is not there, at least from the top down. But there is a burgeoning bottom up grassroots effort trying to instill those concepts into our upper leadership, and recognizing that this is the future that we have presented to us, and the future of our ability to unravel it.
Miller: Would it also mean getting people who are tired physically and mentally of of having smoky air, getting them even more used to the idea that say in October or November, they’re going to have to have sort of smoky days so that they don’t have massively smoky days in July?
Dunn: That’s really the crux of this. It’s trying to get fire back, on our terms. Not that we can remove it from the landscapes in perpetuity. We’ve already learned that lesson. It’s going to be here no matter what. It’s the timing, the intensity, the rate at which those fires occur, that we have some agency over. And right now we continue to focus on suppressing those fires that are easiest to suppress. We remain effective at suppressing 97%-98% of the fires across our Western landscapes every year. And yet those 2%-3% continue to expand the area burned across the western US more intensely, because they really are the worst fires that we can choose to have on our landscape, because they are escaping our ability of our fire management service to suppress them for a reason. And that reason is typically extreme fire weather, which leads to extreme fire behavior and more destructive fires. And those are being accumulated at the expense of those shoulder season fires, say this time of year, when they would be less intense and less destructive.
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