Near the peak of one of the most disruptive fire seasons in recent memory across the Western United States, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke called for more aggressive fire suppression efforts.
“This administration will take a serious turn from the past and will pro-actively work to prevent forest fires through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management to save lives, homes and wildlife habitat,” Zinke said in the news release that accompanied the announcement on Sept 12.
However, forestry experts and forest managers in Central Oregon said that while the memo had some good ideas, some of its approaches were too broad for the region’s complex ecosystem, and limited without being accompanied by funding.
“Generally speaking, the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t actually fit all,” said Matt Shinderman, professor of natural resources at Oregon State University-Cascades.
The West, and Oregon in particular, has suffered through a wildfire season that has seen more than 8.5 million acres burned. Zinke’s memo called for forest managers to dramatically reduce thick undergrowth in portions of the forest that tend to burn frequently.
On Central Oregon’s public lands, this is primarily accomplished through a mix of controlled burning, mowing, mulching and mechanically clearing brush and undergrowth from a site.
Lisa Clark, public affairs officer for the Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior, wrote in an email that seven areas have seen some combination of thinning and burning this year. She added that commercial thinning happens for nearly the entire year, while controlled burns, which need a special set of weather conditions, are typically limited to the late spring and fall.
Clark said the district has not yet adopted the recommendations from Zinke’s memo, and Jessica Gardetto, deputy chief of external affairs for the BLM, confirmed that there is no date set for the agency to adopt them. However, Clark added that this hasn’t stopped the district from taking a proactive approach to wildfire management.
“Because we are in an environment that’s very fire-prone, we’ve been fairly aggressive,” she said.
John Bailey, professor at OSU’s College Of Forestry in Corvallis, agreed that Secretary Zinke was correct to call for increased management of forests in Central Oregon and beyond, but added that the memo lacked detail.
In particular, Bailey said European-American settlement in the West fundamentally changed the complexion of Central Oregon’s forests, through the introduction of cows and other large grazing animals in the early 20th century to over-aggressive fire suppression in the years following World War II. Today, Bailey said, forests in the region are denser than they used to be, with more fuel that can lead to massive fires.
“You can go into the forest … and see conditions that we’ve never seen before,” Bailey said.
He added that fuel management is just one of three major considerations — along with topography and weather — that must be considered when managing wildfire in a forest. Central Oregon’s forests are largely dominated by ponderosa and lodgepole pine at lower elevations, with firs and other conifers at higher elevations. Each of these environments naturally burns differently, and needs to be approached differently.
Bailey added that climate change plays a factor as well, as warmer temperatures continue to extend the fire season and amplify some of its effects. Zinke’s memo does not mention climate change.
Ed Keith, Deschutes County forester, said he liked the intent behind more aggressive reduction of fuels, but added that would be difficult for federal agencies to implement unless the directive is accompanied with additional funding for controlled burns and thinning.
“A lot of the work doesn’t pay for itself,” Keith said. “In a lot of cases, we’re more limited by the funding to do the work than the red tape around it.”
During severe wildfire seasons, money intended to go toward fire prevention instead goes toward putting fires out, a practice derisively referred to as “fire borrowing.” However, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, introduced to the U.S. Senate by a group of senators that includes Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would fund wildfires like natural disasters, potentially freeing up additional money for prevention.
“The fact is the fires are getting hotter; they’ve gotten bigger; they’ve gotten tougher,” Wyden said during a speech from Sept. 7.
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