By George Wuerthner

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The tragic deaths, loss of thousands of homes, and the displacement of even greater numbers of people in Santa Rosa, California, and elsewhere from wildfire offer some lessons that all Westerners, and especially those in Central Oregon, need to consider.

The fires in California were driven by drought, low humidity, an extended period of hot temperatures and, most importantly, wind. Climate/wildfire research reveals that climate/weather is the driving force in large wildfires, not fuels.

Consider the forests in Olympic National Park, which has some of the highest fuel loadings of any forest ecosystem in the West, yet wildfires are very rare. Why? Because the nearly continuous cool, moist climate precludes large fires.

Assuming you have drought, high temperatures and low humidity, the wild card in all fires is wind.

Wind’s effects are not linear, but exponential. In other words, a 20 mph wind will not spread fire twice as fast as a 10 mph wind, but four times as rapidly. So, imagine what happens when the wind is blowing 50-70 mph, as was the case in California.

If you have all of these factors in the same place with an ignition, you get unstoppable wildfires.

Many recent scientific reviews of fuel reduction effectiveness suggest that forest fuel-reduction projects will fail when wildfires are burning under extreme fire weather conditions.

If a fire ignites in the surrounding mountains with high winds, embers will rain down on the homes. If these homes are not fireproofed, entire neighborhoods could burn to the ground.

We, living in Central Oregon, may be deluded into believing recent fuel-reduction projects will save communities like Bend, Sisters and Sunriver.

Not only will most of these fuel reductions fail, there is a growing body of evidence that finds “active management” often increases fire severity, partly because grass, shrubs and small trees quickly fill fuel treatments with flashy fuels.

Seldom mentioned is collateral damage associated with logging, including spread of weeds, soil compaction, sedimentation, erosion from roads, displacement of sensitive wildlife, loss and reduction in down wood and snags, removal of carbon, and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, to name just a few.

Nevertheless, we don’t have to be hapless victims. First, don’t allow new home construction in fire-prone areas.

For existing homes, implementation of fire-wise policies can prevent catastrophes. Things like metal roofs, removal of grass by homes and other measures can go a long way toward keeping a home intact even in the face of a major wildfire.

However, these policies must be implemented at the community level. If your neighbor’s home is a fire trap, even if you have done all the proper fire-wise policies, your house is vulnerable.

Structure fires are much hotter and burn longer than a forest fire, and in many cases, what you find is a single home ignites and then other homes catch on fire like dominoes falling. This is exactly what occurred in California communities like Santa Rosa.

If you want to save your community, you must have mandatory fire-wise policies that are enforced, particularly in areas that border forests and shrub communities.

Wildfire in your neighborhood is a bad thing that can be reduced or prevented with reasonable building codes and mandatory fire-wise regulations. Wildfire in the forest provides the dead snags and down wood critical to healthy forest ecosystems.

— George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published 38 books, including “Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.” He lives in Bend.