By Susan A. Wilson

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In 2018, the Paradise, California, wildfire devastated the entire community by destroying homes, businesses, infrastructure and jobs. The cause has been described as a collision of natural and human factors converging at the optimal moment. Those optimal moments are getting more frequent and there is an urgency to find solutions.

Wildfires are occurring with increasing frequency, intensity and duration. Our choices are to do nothing or figure out a new course of proactive solutions. One consideration is to put out wildfires when they are small — thus reducing the occurrence of mega fires.

In Europe, Germany has been managing its forests for centuries. For about 75 percent of fires in Brandenburg, 20 minutes elapses between detecting the fire and putting it out, according to waldwissen.net. This rapid response means that wildfires are stopped before they become catastrophic. Of course, this does not necessarily stop forest fires from occurring, but the rapid curtailment means less destruction of life and property. When offensive fire suppression is combined with active forest management, wildfires can be reduced in number and intensity. Local communities participate in fuel reduction activities to reduce undergrowth and thin trees.

Canada implements a zone system around population areas surrounded by forest. The zone determines the level and intensity of forest management needed to protect people and sustain healthy forests. The zones also determine how and when fire suppression will be executed. Wildfires near populated areas are put out immediately and by the local jurisdiction.

So, what are the lessons? In order to reduce catastrophic wildfire and smoke, we need to be attentive to these causes and calculated in our responses. That means first having a comprehensive and cohesive wildfire management strategy as well as a sustainable forest management program that is implemented at the local level by a host of stakeholders. We all need to be involved!

Wildfire suppression needs to be offensive. We need to detect wildfires early and put them out immediately. The best response will be a local response that can act before wildfires become catastrophic.

Once wildfires are out, we need to reduce the fuel that creates catastrophic circumstances. That means more resources to clean out forest brush, thin trees and restore damaged watersheds.

There are also opportunities to develop alternative technologies and industries that will utilize the excessive forest materials as biomass fuels to power utilities, grow food and provide sustainable building materials. Most forest reduction practices involve burning, but biomass technologies are an alternative that reduces pollution and generates economic returns for the community.

Finally, it is not a matter of doing nothing or one thing. Rather, it is a matter of doing a number of things at the same time. Putting out wildfires immediately combined with active forest management will reduce mega wildfires. The problem is that most federal Forest Service dollars go to suppression with little remaining for forest management. The top to bottom federal policies assumes one size fits all. We need more localized decision making processes that can address stakeholder concerns and develop strategies that can be swiftly implemented to preserve the life and sustainability of the community and forests.

There are successful examples of what can be done and painful memories of what needed to be done. Let’s preserve the natural beauty of our national parks, forests and wilderness areas by being good stewards of the forests through sound forest management and community collaboration. Let’s keep our forests green and wildlife safe!

— Susan A. Wilson lives in Sisters.

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