Think Out Loud

Managing wildfire risk from Southern Oregon’s dying fir trees

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Aug. 31, 2023 5:14 p.m. Updated: Sept. 6, 2023 10:49 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Aug. 31

In Southwest Oregon, Douglas firs are dying. And warmer temperatures along with more severe droughts are making the problem worse. What does this mean for the future of forests in places like Ashland? How should fire prone communities handle stands of dead trees which can act as fuel for wildfires? Max Bennett is a retired extension forester with Oregon State University. He led research on Douglas fir mortality. Chris Chambers is the forest officer for the city of Ashland. We learn more about what this means for the region, what’s being done to reduce wildfire risk and how Oregonians should be thinking about forests.


Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. At the beginning of this year, we talked about Firmageddon. That was the name for the largest die off of fir trees ever recorded in 75 years of surveys by the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry. It included all kinds of trees: white fir, grands, nobles, and Oregon’s state tree, the Douglas fir. Today we’re gonna turn to what this means for one community that’s in the shadow of its own local die off. In some forests around Ashland, half of Doug firs are dead or dying. Chris Chambers is the forest officer for the city of Ashland. Max Bennett is a retired extension forester at Oregon State University. He’s led research on Doug fir mortality. They both join us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Max Bennett: Thank you.

Chris Chambers: Thank you.

Miller: So, Chris Chambers first, can you give us a sense for the scale of the die offs that you’re seeing around Ashland?

Chambers: It’s really hard to get your arms around it. We surveyed about 800 acres that are impacted, that are directly under the city’s management purview, but that is by no means the scope of the problem. It extends for many, many thousands of acres out in all directions from Ashland. We kind of look at our own backyard and what we can control right now, and that’s just one small slice of it. Max may have a better sense of what that looks like regionally.

Miller: Yes. Max, I mean, if you can give us the regional picture here, just so we have a sense for the scale of this problem.

Bennett: Sure, absolutely. So, tens of thousands of trees have been killed, tens of thousands of acres are affected, ranging from Douglas County down through the Rogue Valley, out in the Applegate Valley. So sort of, the drier, hotter portions of Southwest Oregon. But that’s not to say that every Douglas fir tree has died, but it’s pretty concentrated on those hot and dry sites.

Miller: Back in January when we talked about Firmageddon, the conversation included a lot of what are known as true firs, like grand firs and white fir. What’s causing these Doug fir die offs in particular?

Bennett: Yeah, it’s a really similar process to what’s happening with the true fir. So, we call it a decline spiral. So first you have to understand that the amount of Douglas fir that is growing at lower elevations in Southwest Oregon is probably a lot greater than it was historically because historically, we had a lot of frequent low severity wildfires that tended to promote forests that had more pines and oaks and certainly some Douglas fir, but not as much as we have now. So the landscape has really changed. And then in recent years, we’ve had a drought, of course, but it’s been drought accompanied by higher temperatures, particularly in the summer. And that has really stressed trees to their limits on these already hot and dry sites. And then opportunistic insects come along and take advantage of these stressed trees and kill them.

So, a very similar dynamic is happening with the true fir. It’s just a different species, different species of insect. But the basic idea of landscape change with fire exclusion, drought and opportunistic insects is very similar.

Miller: Chris Chambers, I understand that part of what you’ve done is using drones to get an aerial view close to Ashland. Can you give us a sense for the pictures that have come from that? I mean, what do you see?

Chambers: There is a lot of what we call red and dead out there, canopies that have turned from green to red. Ashland has always kind of prided itself on having the emerald necklace of forests surrounding our community and that emerald necklace is changing to something a little more ruby colored these days. In our assessment, done with a local company called Rogue Reconnaissance, they use a drone to look at the forest with what’s called a multispectral camera. So a multispectral camera can see what the human eye can see, but it also has two lenses that add dimensions that we don’t pick up with our eyes, to be able to see changes in canopy color and trees that are not only obviously dead, but on their way to being dead. And so we can categorize that, and we did in a certain report and put it all together.

What the drone sees from above is about 20% of all Douglas fir at lower elevations, the places Max was talking about, are either dead or dying right now. What we know also from surveys from the ground is that there are a lot more indications of mortality in Douglas fir that you can’t see from above, but you can only see from below. How much more that adds to the 20% tally, we don’t know that, but just from walking around in our forests and doing assessments and some of Max’s colleagues who are out in the woods right now, really trying to get an idea of how much more than what we see from the air is dying. It’s probably pretty significant. But the 20% that we can see now is concerning enough.

Miller: You mentioned that this is surrounding your community. How close are the dead or dying trees to people’s homes or other buildings?

Chambers: Very close, and in fact, of course, none of this stops at any property lines. So it has been for about three years running now - in the drought here and across Oregon, of course, people have experienced this, but here in particular - a lot of people have had trees die, like right in their yards. We get weekly calls from people who have 1, 2, up to 20, 30, 40, even hundreds of trees on larger forest land ownerships that border the city. And they just don’t know what to do with all the dead and dying trees. And it really is a significant problem that is literally in people’s backyards. The city property that we surveyed, which includes open space under the Ashland Parks and Recreations purview, many of those acres are also in people’s backyards and adjacent to private property and the city limits. Some is inside the city limits and some is just a stone’s throw up into the lower Ashland watershed, certainly within the realm of what could be influenced by a wildfire, casting embers into the city. So it is of a high concern to the safety of our citizens, that we look at this problem as well as the health of the forest.

Miller: Max Bennett, what happens after a Doug fir has died because of drought or is about to die? I mean, one first question is, how long is it likely to stay standing?

Bennett: Yeah. It depends somewhat on the size of the tree. So generally speaking, a larger tree would persist for longer. Some small trees may fall in just a few years. Larger ones could be standing for many years, decades even, in some cases. So it’s quite variable, but basically the trees, initially, there’s a lot of red, obviously dead needles on the trees, red foliage, it’s very flammable. Then eventually though, in fairly short order, those fall off, and then over time you have branches, the tree is basically decaying and branches are falling to the ground and eventually, they topple over.

Miller: What do these dead or downed trees mean for habitat? I mean, some number of dead trees have obviously always been a part of a natural ecosystem. What role do they play?


Bennett: Yeah, I mean, and Chris can certainly address this too, but dead trees are essential for forest health. We need dead trees. There are a lot of bird species, small mammals, many species that depend on dead trees. They are important for nutrient cycling. So we don’t want to get rid of all the dead trees on our landscape. But there is a question of balance and right now, I think it would be reasonable to say that we’re way out of balance in terms of the amount of dead trees relative to habitat needs.

Miller: So, back to you, Chris Chambers. You did mention the watershed in your last answer. How does that complicate everything we’re talking about? This is where your drinking water comes from.

Chambers: That is a serious issue for the city of Ashland. We actually derive about a billion gallons of drinking water from our watershed per year. It is not the only source, but it is by far the primary source of water for our economy here in Ashland and of course, our citizens who are here year round. Where it is situated is, it’s kind of like putting the kindling together for a campfire and you put the paper at the bottom of the fire and you light it. That’s where all of the die off is happening, is at the bottom where you would put the paper to light your campfire. And that’s kind of how fire behavior works. It tends, fires tend to travel uphill, most rapidly and out of control. And that’s where we have this fuel that is developing at these lower elevations. It’s right against people’s homes and the infrastructure of our community. But it’s also at the very foot of the Ashland watershed where we get our drinking water.

Miller: What’s the nightmare scenario?

Chambers: Yeah, that’s one that does keep me up at night, a lot of nights. The nightmare scenario is certainly a fire starting right on the edge of the community, where it’s immediately impacting private residences, causing evacuations, causing our fire department to have to defend people’s homes as well as our agency fire partners, from the Department of Forestry at the state level and the federal level, the U.S. Forest Service, in response where we primarily are thinking about protecting lives and property and we just don’t have the resources immediately to try to put the fire out as it blows up into the Ashland watershed and creates potentially a lot of damage.

We’ve done a lot of upslope forest stewardship over the years under the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project and managing the city’s forest lands actively since 1995. So we’re trying to reduce the impact of what we know is an inevitable fire on the landscape above town where our water comes from. But as climate change pushes us towards hotter and drier conditions, some of those treatments may not work unless they’re kept up to date and maintained, and we try to do that through prescribed burning. So we feel like we’ve done a good job and we’ve done a lot. There’s still a lot more to do, but that nightmare scenario is still there and if we don’t act quickly with the Douglas fir mortality that’s happening soon, we are gonna have a lot of fuel right at our doorstep.

Miller: So what is the plan now in terms of thinning of, from my understanding, helicopter-based logging? I mean, what’s the scale of what you think needs to happen?

Chambers: Yeah, this, this is something luckily that we have some experience with. Back in 2004, the city responded to a similar die off of Doug fir, maybe not as many trees as we’re seeing now, but it was substantial at the time. We did hire a helicopter company to come in. We marked a lot of dead and dying Doug fir. We also cut and thinned out a lot of green trees and the way to think about this project and what we need to do is not just in response to this one small episode of dying trees. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a blip and what we’re looking at is really like a mounting tidal wave that’s coming with climate change. And so what we’re trying to do is tackle the underlying conditions that are not only have led to what’s happening right now, but what is probably worse in the future. And Max can talk about some of the models that look out 20 and 30 years and what that looks like for Southwest Oregon, and it’s not pretty.

So what we’re doing now is thinking in the long term, what’s the forest gonna be like? What’s the environment gonna be like in 25 years? How can we prepare our forest to absorb what’s coming, with the least amount of disruption and at the same time protecting our community. So, it’s not only a response to what’s happening now, but it’s really looking forward and fortunately, we have a great City Council and a Forest Lands Commission who has written a plan for that and we got that passed through the council this April. So we’ve been thinking about this issue for a couple of years, even before the latest pulse of dead trees has shown up on the hillsides.

Miller: What do you see as the public appetite these days for prescribed burns or an increase in selective logging?

Chambers: It is a good question. What we have seen so far in our work in Ashland Forest Resiliency, that’s a project that started in 2010 and is still ongoing. We actually have a longitudinal survey done by Southern Oregon University. We followed the same set of people and gauged their attitudes towards those exact topics that you brought up,

prescribed burning and thinning our forests, and support for both activities grew over time. So as people saw what it looked like in the forest and the effects that it was having and we could show with data collection that we were actually reducing fire danger to the community and the watershed, people’s support was steadily increasing. I hope that we will still see that kind of support. I know we have a lot of concern in the community as people look up at the hillsides and they see a lot of dead trees. We’re gonna be doing a lot of outreach in the next month to two months, taking people on tours. And that has really been the hallmark of what we’ve done in involving the community, is getting people’s feet out there in the forest to experience it directly. And I think there’s no substitute for that. And those discussions you have on the ground are the most important and really help inform people.

I think people have an environmental ethic here in Ashland that, and they’re open to science and what it’s been, what the research that Max is bringing to the table and many, many other research publications, saying that we really have to act right now, if we want to be proactive about this topic. And if we don’t embrace that change and prepare for it, it’s still gonna come and we’re not gonna like it, if we’re not guiding it.

Miller: But just to be clear then, that people in Ashland should expect more prescribed burns in the coming years?

Chambers: Yeah. And we have done a lot of work. In fact, we have about a 13,000 acre footprint of work that’s been completed since 2010. That means we would like to be visiting those acres every 10 years with prescribed fire. We’ve gotten up to about 600 or 700 acres of burning per year now. Well, we need to add 500 or 600 acres to that. So, it does get challenging when you’ve got these smoky summers to talk about: oh, we need to see more smoke and, yeah, there’s gonna be some smoky days from our burning. But the grim truth of where we’re at right now with climate change is we have to do this work, and that’s not just unique to Ashland. A lot of communities across Oregon are facing that same decision and certainly Deschutes County has pursued it pretty aggressively, and done a lot of good burning and many other places too. And we see it as not really a choice, but as something that’s imperative.

Miller: And Max Bennett before we say goodbye, I mentioned at the beginning that you’re a retired extension forester at OSU. Why are you still doing this work? Why are you still doing this research?

Bennett: Well, I think it’s just as Chris said, I mean, we really need to help our forests adapt to the change that is inevitable. And, it’s important to me, I love our forests and I want to contribute to that in my small little way.

We have a great partnership down here with folks like Chris and many, many others that are involved in thinking about how we can help restore our forests and adapt them to the future. And it’s just, it’s a fun group to be part of.

Miller: Chris Chambers and Max Bennett, thank you.

Bennett: Thank you.

Chambers: You’re welcome. Thanks for having us.

Miller: Max Bennett is a retired extension forester at Oregon State University. Chris Chambers is the forest officer for the city of Ashland.

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