Wildfire season is upon us. With Deschutes County in severe drought and hot temperatures forecasted, large and severe fires like the Milli (2017), Two Bulls (2014), Pole Creek (2012) and Rooster Rock (2010) are very possible this year. Fires like these threaten homes, disrupt tourist activity and recreation, impact mature forest habitat and fill our air with smoke. Firefighters will do their best to contain wildfires this summer, their jobs made more dangerous by COVID-19. But the beginning of wildfire season is also a good time to ask what we did this past fall, winter, and spring to try to reduce the severity of this summer’s fires.
We can’t control winds, temperatures, humidity or lightning, but we can manage the fuels that feed fires. The dry forest ecosystem of Deschutes County was once dominated by large, widely spaced, fire-resistant ponderosa pine trees with an understory of low bunch grasses. Today, our forests are densely packed with small trees and brush, and the species mix has shifted towards low fire resistance grand fir and juniper. To restore the local forest ecosystem and reduce the risks of high severity wildfire we need to reduce the overall density of trees, grow up more large fire-resistant trees, and convert the understory from heavy shrub cover back to more grass.
Fuels reduction and active forest restoration is needed across millions of acres of Eastern and Central Oregon. Since roughly 75% of Deschutes County is managed by the Forest Service or BLM, we need to address fuels on the federal land to meaningfully reduce risk to our communities.
Unfortunately, fuels reduction in national forests has been slowed by political polarization for decades. At one extreme are groups who blame excessive environmental regulations and review processes, and at the other extreme are people who feed suspicions that fuels reduction is just a timber grab. Neither of these characterizations are accurate or helpful. Forest collaboratives, such as the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, have shown us how to navigate polarization by planning fuels reduction projects that effectively reduce hazardous fuels, protect and improve wildlife habitat, create jobs in the woods, and provide some wood fiber for forest products — all while proceeding smoothly through environmental review. Collaboration works. In 2017 we saw collaboratively planned fuels treatments protect homes and prevent evacuations near Sisters during the Milli Fire.
The real challenge is that thinning out lots of small trees and mowing and prescribed burning shrubs is expensive. The trees that everyone agrees are appropriate to thin from the forest don’t have a lot of commercial value. Implementing restoration and fuels reduction at the pace and scale needed to really affect wildfire behavior needs supplemental funding.
We need elected leaders who don’t feed political polarization and who help us secure the supplemental funding to invest in the future of our forests and the safety of our communities. Because counties once received timber receipts from national forests and still sometimes get county payments in lieu of receipts, county commissioners have the ears of our congressional delegation. Commissioners should spend more time advocating for hazardous fuels funding and less time complaining about environmental review processes.
In 2019, the Deschutes National Forest had over 125,000 acres of thinning and prescribed burning treatments through environmental review waiting for implementation funding. The state Legislature considered a proposal from the Governor’s Wildfire Committee to invest in fuels reduction in early 2020 and failed to act. As we watch the wildfires burn big and hot this summer, we need to remember our elected leaders who weren’t serious about funding fuel reduction. In November, we need to demand more.