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Southern Oregon Wildfires: the Rhetoric and the Reality

Recently a low-intensity, backing wildfire dropped into my community from the ridge above, cleaning up fuels, thinning young trees and re-initiating the ancient process of fire in a fire-starved environment. Firefighters and engines lined the road and waited, stationed at every home to protect our small community as the Abney Fire, part of the Miller Complex, approached. They safely guided the fire down the slope to containment lines adjacent to our homes.

Trapped beneath a heavy inversion layer, smoke filled the forested canyon. Smoke smothered the sun, trapping moisture, limiting air movement, reducing temperatures, and moderating fire severity. Believe it or not, when wildfire is at your doorstep, smoke is an ally. Despite the impact to local communities, the smoke inversion itself moderates fire behavior and helps ensure a natural, mixed-severity fire. Although a nuisance, when smoke lingers in our valleys and canyons, wildfires are more likely to burn slow and cool.

Recently, an opinion piece in the Mail Tribune by Dave Schott from the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association (SOTIA) presented numerous misrepresentations about wildfire and forest management. His rhetoric claims that unmanaged forests will succumb to wildfire if they are not logged first.

Fire has been an influential natural process, shaping our forests for millennia and creating the world-renowned biodiversity of our region. Contrary to Schott’s claims, the Miller Complex Fire has not been a high-severity, stand-replacing event. The majority of the fire area has, so far, been burning at low to moderate severity in largely intact forest in the Applegate Watershed. In fact, many of the fires that burn throughout our region, in general, tend to burn at mostly low to moderate severity, especially in older forests. On the other hand, heavily logged timberlands tend to burn at high severity, threatening more homes and private property. This was the case in recent fires such as the Quartz, Oregon Gulch, Beaver, Stouts and Douglas Complex fires.

Timber industry lobbyists such as Schott are working hard to perpetuate the myth that logging will reduce fire hazards and eliminate the smoke and effects of wildfire. This is simply untrue. Fire is a natural process, and unless Schott thinks logging can eliminate lightning storms, we must learn to live with it.

The reality is that the sort of logging that SOTIA supports will only make the problem worse. Even-aged plantation stands, dense logging slash, the removal of large, fire-resistant trees, and the removal of overstory canopy only encourages more dense, fire-prone fuel in the succeeding years.

Counter to Schott’s claims, none of the fires currently burning in our area are “let-burn” fires. Crews are working to suppress these fires in a safe and responsible manner while protecting lives, communities and, we hope, ecological values.

The fires we are currently experiencing are natural, lightning-caused fires. The majority were successfully suppressed by fire crews at very minimal acres and are no longer burning; some went out on their own with no intervention. Other fires that started in remote, rugged and relatively inaccessible terrain resisted containment. Due to significant and real concerns for firefighter safety, and constrained by a lack of resources, fires across the West have become established. Neither logging nor aggressive suppression can change this reality. Given the sheer number of fires this season, staffing and resources have been severely strained. Large, region-wide lightning storms have always overwhelmed fire crews and led to large wildfires.

In the rugged terrain of the Siskiyou Mountains, suppressing wildfires at all costs puts firefighters in harm’s way. In some situations the safety risks are just too great. Some would have you believe that fire managers are purposefully letting fires burn, when in fact, firefighters are protecting both life and property by strategically placing the majority of resources where they are needed most: near homes and property.

For decades, aggressive fire suppression was an unquestioned paradigm with mounting costs to society. Fire-dependent ecosystems such as the forests of Southern Oregon were starved of fire, while at the same time our forests were being logged at an ever-quickening pace. Forests composed of large, fire-resistant trees were replaced with highly flammable plantation stands and logging slash. The effect of logging on the forests of Southern Oregon has been as pronounced as fire suppression, and the compounding effect of both logging and fire suppression has got us where we are today.

Luke Ruediger is program director of the Applegate Neighborhood Network.

This column originally appeared in the Medford Mail-Tribune.

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