Jodi Schneider McNamee: Extraordinary combustion- Oregon Forests in Peril

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

“We must not only protect the countryside and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities … Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured.

– Lyndon B. Johnson

Forests are essential for life on earth, and they cover a third of our planets land. They provide raw materials, maintain biodiversity, spiritual well-being, protect land and water resources, and play a role in climate change mitigation.

Three hundred million people worldwide live in forests and 1.6 billion depend on them for their livelihoods. Forests also provide habitat for a broad range of plants and animals. The forests protect our watersheds. They inspire wonder and provide places for recreation. Forests are so much more than a collection of trees. Forests are home to 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.

Trees absorb CO2, water and sunlight to make food, and through that process of photosynthesis, release clean healthy oxygen that humans can breathe. In other words, trees remove large amounts of one of the major greenhouse gases, CO2.

Forestland also helps keep our water safe to drink. It absorbs rain, refills underground aquifers, cools and cleanses water, slows storm runoff, and sustains watershed stability and resilience.

Without healthy watersheds, habitat deteriorates for all living things, including people. Forests play a critical role in watershed health, but too often, the link between forests, watershed conditions, and water quality and quantity goes unnoticed.

So, forests are critical for protecting, regulating, and filtering water resources gathered from rainfall and snow.

Forests are also important in other ways, studies have shown that viewing trees can offer important physical and psychological benefits like lowering blood pressure, slowing heart rate and promoting a sense of well-being. According to a study by Dr. Robert Ulrich, post surgical patients in rooms with views of trees recovered faster and required less pain medication then patients whose windows faced a brick wall. The benefits from nature are not limited to recovering patients. Did you know that viewing nature has been shown to alleviate mental fatigue, heighten attention and focus, and lower levels of aggression?

The 193 million acres of public land that are managed as national forest and grasslands are collectively known as the National Forest System. These lands are located in 44 states, and comprise about 9 % of the total land area in the United States. These forested areas are organized into 155 national forests.

In the past, U. S. forests have been valued primarily for economic reasons, but now scientific research is beginning to confirm and expand our understanding of the human/nature relationship.

Though we have never needed forests more than today, American forests and forests around the world face more threats now than ever before. Development associated with 7 billion people, climate change, an excess of intense wildfires, disease and insects; all of these factors and more endanger the forests that we rely on so much.

Nature loves balance, and nature, as dynamic as it is, always heads toward balance. However, humans have upset that balance through past aggressive logging, overgrazing, and the suppression of forest fires for the past century, which has prevented the normal fire cycle and allowed some forests to become overcrowded with a buildup of unnatural amounts of debris or excess fuel load. The recent “hands off” approach to forest management on public lands increased the fuel load even more. Then climate change threw a bigger wrench into matters by aggravating that imbalance with its dramatic shifts in temperature and moisture.

Wildfires in our national forests damage, often severely an average of nearly 4 million acres across the United States each year, which releases over a billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Severe wildfires not only release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, they can damage forests so badly that it takes years for them to begin absorbing CO2. Fire is necessary, but right now it is a severe threat to the forests, so strong policies and competent management is imperative for them to continue to function normally!

Without forests our climate would collapse.

Forests serve as the planet’s mechanism to transform CO2 into oxygen.

If the earth’s forests were to disappear, life as we know it would cease to exist. The forests absorb most of the carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce oxygen (O2). Without this absorption and creation, eventually the entire planet’s atmosphere would be filled with carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

There is a vast difference between the “natural fires” of a century ago and the firestorms of today. Very few natural fires can occur today because most of our western forests are out of balance.

When our forests were in balance, frequent forest-cleansing surface fires (often started by lightning) reduced the combustible fuel load on the forest floor, Mother Nature’s way of cleaning house-without burning down the house.

While factors such as prolonged drought due to climate change and years of fire exclusion continue to raise the risk of wildfire, it is imperative that the federal government actively address the one issue within its control: hazardous fuels. Unnatural, overgrown and unhealthy forests increase the risk of wildfire loss. Fortunately it is possible to reduce this growing risk of these catastrophic wildfires through proactive, healthy forest management.

Simply leaving today’s forests alone after a century of fire exclusion and forestry focused on the extraction of old growth trees is not caring for them. It is desertion.

Ensuring active management of forests is critical to preventing wildfires and important to the long-term health of our forests.

The ability of the forest to sustain itself ecologically and provide what society wants and needs is one way to define a healthy forest. Maintaining the balance between forest sustainability and production of goods and services for society is the right balance between man and nature.

Ecological: A healthy forest maintains its unique species and processes, while maintaining its basic structure, composition and function.

Social: A healthy forest has the ability to accommodate current and future needs of people for values, products and services.

These two components are linked. Forests cannot meet social needs without possessing the sustained capacity to grow, reproduce, recycle nutrients, and carry out other ecological functions.

Forest health issues are rooted both in their ecological as well as social aspects. A forest is a dynamic system, continually changing in response to disturbances. Some disturbances help maintain native species and sustainable conditions. Others, such as the high severity fires of today, threaten them.

There are limits to which a forest can recover from disturbances like that.

Since the fire cycle was suspended over much of the last century, the fuel load has become so extensive, that it is resulting in megafires that make recovery difficult.

And severe wildfires can make burned areas, and areas downstream, more susceptible to flooding for years afterward.

The vast ponderosa pine forests of the West evolved with frequent low-intensity ground fires. In some places, land that had only 30 or 40 large ponderosa pines scattered across an acre in the early 1900’s, in grassy parklike stands, now have up to 1,000 to 2,000 smaller-diameter trees per acre. These fuel-dense forests are susceptible to destructive crown fires, which burn in the canopy and destroy most trees and seeds.

With the success of past fire suppression, combined with public opposition to both commercial logging and preventive tree thinning on federal land, western forests into bonfires ready to blow!

It’s as if there were millions of gallons of gasoline spilled into these forests.

The damage from these destructive megafires is unnatural, and forests re-grow poorly, causing problems such as erosion and damaged water supplies. Climate change has intensified droughts and brought higher than average temperatures, and longer fire seasons, which leads to even more intense fires, so you end up with catastrophic wildfires that are ripping through forests and communities causing damage and devastation, like a horror movie.

The National Research Council reports that for every degree Celsius (1.8 F) of temperature increase, the size of the area burned in the Western U.S. could quadruple.

According to Climate Central, the number of large and very large fires on Forest Service land is increasing dramatically. Compared to the average year in the 1970’s, in the past decade there were:

  • 7 times more fires greater than 10,000 acres each year.
  • Nearly 5 times more fires larger than 25,000 acres across each year.
  • Twice as many fires over 1,000 acres each year, with an average of more than 100 per year from 2002 through 2011, compared with less than 50 during the 1970’s.

In some states the increase in wildfires is even more dramatic. Since the 1970’s the average number of fires over 1,000 acres each year has nearly quadrupled in Arizona and Idaho, and has doubled in California, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.

Not only that, but because of the increased acreage of wildfire there is a hidden hazard; smoke and ash from large wildfires produces staggering levels of air pollution, threatening the health of thousands of people, often hundreds of miles away from where these wildfires burn.

Along with air pollution harming the health of people, the CO2 released from the fire is adding to the already high carbon dioxide levels into the atmosphere.

According to Climate Central, the last time there was this much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere, modern humans didn’t exist.

As we are over the record for the highest CO2 concentration in human history-400 parts per million- climate scientists worry about where we were then, and where we’re rapidly headed now.

According to recent studies, American wildfires unleash nearly three hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. And in some states, large scale fires can produce as much carbon dioxide in a few weeks as motor vehicle traffic does in a year.

With active forest management this would not be the case. We can protect our forest from large scale fires by creating fire-resistant forests.

The size of a wildfire and its proximity to where people live are major determinants of its health impact. The health effects of wildfires on people can be toxic. There can be acute worsening of existing heart or lung disease due to decreased air quality from the fine particles (PM2.5) in wildfire smoke and a risk of chronic lung disease or cancer due to hydrocarbons and other contaminants in wildfire smoke.

Smoke and ash from large wildfires produces staggering levels of air pollution, threatening the health of thousands of people, often hundreds of miles away from where these wildfires burn. The critical component of a fire’s smoke is so-called “fine particle” air pollution, which is a direct threat to human health even during relatively short exposures. And the pollution levels produced by these wildfires are extremely high: high enough to potentially increase mortality in susceptible populations, like the elderly and those with heart conditions, and increase emergency room visits for asthma sufferers and others with respiratory conditions.

Smoke is composed of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals, and nitrogen oxides, with trace minerals and several thousand other compounds. The actual composition of smoke depends on the fuel type, the temperature of the fire, and the wind conditions

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas, produced as a product of incomplete combustion.  It is produced in the largest amounts during the smoldering stages of the fire.

The very youngest are also at risk: Lower birth weights are found among babies born to mothers exposed to wildfire smoke during pregnancy. Even otherwise healthy people may experience minor symptoms, such as sore throats and itchy eyes. One study from Southern California describes a wildfire season that resulted in 69 premature deaths, 778 hospitalizations, 1,431 emergency room visits, and 47,605 outpatient visits, mostly for respiratory and cardiovascular health problems aggravated by smoke exposure

These are all rational reasons that a new approach and sense of urgency is needed to manage our forests and avoid these high intensity of today.

The USFS must see that we need to remove the enormous accumulation of fuel on the ground in the forests that are high risk, not only for the health of the forests, but for the health of the people!

The lack of active forest management has caused significant forest overgrowth and degradation and made them increasingly susceptible to large scale wildfires.

According to the Insurance Information Institute the top 10 most wildfire prone states are California, Texas, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Nevada.

On a single day, August 20, 1988, about 160,000 acres were consumed by fires in the greater Yellowstone Park area, a day that came to be known as “Black Saturday.” A dozen or so fires in the area had been burning for a little over a month and already a half million acres in and around Yellowstone had gone up in flames.  The Yellowstone fires together formed the largest wildfire in the recorded history of Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

Park service policy since 1972 had allowed naturally caused fires to burn out on their own. Officials had grown to trust computer models constructed from years of data that guided them on when to let natural fires go and when to put them out.

When the first several fires were identified in mid-July, the official policy was to let it burn.

But by mid-July of that dry summer, parks officials realized the fires would not burn out as the formulas had predicted and was spreading at an astonishing rate.

By July 27, fires had covered nearly 100,000 acres total — more than double the forest that had burned in Yellowstone in the previous 15 years.

Fire lines were dug, backfires were set, and parts of  the forests were strafed with chemical retardant, and still the woods burned, because by the time firefighters were allowed to use the most powerful techniques by creating control lines with bulldozers and more, it was too late. The fires had grown too large and the weather was moving them too fast.

The idea that forest fires should always be left to burn on “natural” lands, particularly wilderness, is popular with the environmental establishment. They oppose fire suppression because it is viewed as unnatural. And fire is viewed as a natural act of nature.

Yet today’s wildfires, including the Yellowstone fires, that ended up of a larger magnitude than ever before, are themselves “unnatural” fires.

Again, very few “natural” fires can occur today because most of our forests are not in equilibrium.

The western United States has experienced record-breaking wildfire seasons in recent years. Since 2000, the average annual area burned in wildfires has more than doubled from the 1985 to 1999 annual average. The costs associated with putting our wildfires out have similarly soared, surpassing $1 billion every year since 2000. The 2006, 2007, and 2012 fire seasons were, the first, second, and third worst since 1960 in terms of area burned, with 9.3 million to 9.8 million acres burned each year, an annual area twice the size of New Jersey. Many states have experienced some of their largest wildfires in recorded history in the last decade and a half.

The 2002 Hayman Fire in Colorado, the 2003 Cedar Fire in California, the 2012 Ash Creek Fire in Montana, and 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in New Mexico were all the largest recorded to date in those states.

New Mexico also experienced a devastating wildfire season in 2011, which affected more than 1 million acres of land-and area roughly the size of Delaware.

The Rodeo-Chediski Fire was a wildfire that burned more than 460,000 acres in east-central Arizona beginning on June 18, 2002 and was not controlled until July 7. It was the worst fire in Arizona’s history until June 14, 2011 when the Wallow Fire surpassed Rodeo-Chediski as the largest fire in Arizona’s history.

Last year, the 2013 fire season saw the third-largest fire that California has seen to date, the Rim Fire, which raged over more than 257,000 acres in and around Yosemite National Park in Mariposa and Tuolumne counties in the Sierra Nevada region.

Wildfires have always been a natural and essential part of forest ecosystems for the American West. However, new climatic conditions and years of fire suppression are fundamentally changing the nature of wildfires, the length of wildfire seasons, and the intensity at which they burn.

Opponents of active forest management argue for a no-touch policy. They want to prohibit most human contact with what they consider pristine forestland. While no-touch policies may sound nice, their practical implications can be devastating. Because we have prevented wildfires for the past 100 years, suddenly adopting a let-it-burn policy will lead to more of the huge, devastating fires that have plagued the Western United States in recent years.

Few experiences provide more stark examples of the effects of hands-off management than in 2003 with the San Bernardino wildfires. Fanned by heavy winds and fueled by choked, unmanaged forests, the fires burned 800,000 acres, destroyed 3,400 homes and claimed the lives of 22 people.

In August 2014, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists wildfire report, dozens of wildfires burned across the Pacific Northwest, charring hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and grassland and forced thousands of residents from their homes.

In July 2014 President Obama declared a wildfire emergency in Washington when the Carleton Complex Fire burned 243,000 acres as the largest fire in the state’s history.

And according to the National Climate Assessment, released this year, warmer and drier conditions have already increased the frequency and intensity of fires in Western forests since the 1970’s.

Ensuring active management of forests is critical to preventing wildfires and important to the long-term health of our forests.

PART ll

The preservation of a few samples of undeveloped territory is one of the most clamant issues before us today. Just a few more years of hesitation and the only trace of that wilderness which has exerted such a fundamental influence in molding American character will lie in the musty pages of pioneer books … To avoid this catastrophe demands immediate action.

Robert (Bob) Marshall
Co-founder, The Wilderness Society

There is a big problem that the Nation needs to solve.

Fires are getting bigger and more extreme than ever before.

Oregon forests are in peril.

Of the 30 million acres of forestland in Oregon, more than 60 percent is publicly owned. Most is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and is reserved for wildlife habitat, wilderness and recreational purposes with limited timber harvesting. The remainder of public lands is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, state forests, state parks, cities and counties. The private landowners largely manage their lands. But one main concern by private landowners is when their managed land boundaries with public forest land that is unmanaged, the possibilities of a high intensity wildfire puts them at risk.

Lack of management of these public forests has produced some devastating consequences and remains a major issue.

Nearly 40 percent of federal forestland in Oregon is now classified at high-risk of uncharacteristically intense fire due to dense, unnaturally overcrowded and dying trees. This is especially true of federal forests east of the Cascades, including the Deschutes National Forest.

While Oregon has seen large fires in the past, the trend toward hotter, drier conditions and greater risk of wildfires is clear. As of last September, Oregon’s state-protected lands have seen a ten-fold increase in acreage burned over the 10 year average.

According to Kathie Dello, Associate Director of OCCRI; Deputy Director, Oregon Climate Service, the Northwest has warmed. Warm and dry conditions are what we should expect to see in future summers, which mean increased fire danger and increased incidents of drought.

Mismanaged forests in the Pacific Northwest, over the past 100 years have gathered more fuel for fires, and climate change is causing longer fire seasons. Fuel buildup from over suppression has come back to haunt and destroy Oregon’s forests. Just imagine that tons of gasoline is spread all over the forest floor just waiting for that one spark of lightning to fuel the perfect firestorm. With so much fuel on the ground and so little space between trees, these fires burn with intensity unlike past natural wildfires. Fire often reaches the top of the forest canopy and can kill entire trees. Intense fire can alter soil characteristics, increasing erosion and limiting reforestation.

On July 13, 2002 a series of lighting storms ignited five fires in southwest Oregon’s rugged river-rich Kalmiopsis Country. Four of the fires eventually became known as the Biscuit Fire burning 500,000 acres. In overall acreage it’s said to be one of the largest fires in Oregon’s history.

Illinois Valley Fire District Captain Tom Zulliger worked the Biscuit Fire, and in an interview with KTVL News 10, as Zulliger looked at the scorched hills of the Kaimiopsis Wilderness, he remembered the lightning strikes that sparked the fires, as well as the actions that sparked controversy.

“I don’t know what they were thinking. I know what they did,” Zulliger said as he spoke about the U.S. Forest Service’s response to the flames. “They didn’t take action on it for awhile.”

At the time it burned, the Biscuit Fire was Oregon’s largest and most expensive wildfire in recent history. Controlling the flames took nearly two months, and efforts to extinguish it completely lasted through the remainder of 2002 until winter rains and snow put it out.

Similarly the B & B Complex Fire burned until winter snow; it was two fires that merged together in August 2003 burning over 90,000 acres, which was the largest complex fire in the history of the Oregon Cascades. The Bear Butte Fire and the Booth Fire were spotted on the same day and eventually burned together as a single fire that stretched along the crest of the Cascade Mountains between Mount Jefferson and Mount Washington.

This was a large fire that was uncharacteristic in size and intensity compared to historical fires. At higher elevations (within wilderness area) stand replacement fires were more common, but were probably not as large as this fire, according to Northwest Center for Sustainable Resources.

The Oregon Gulch Fire (part of the Beaver Complex Fire) during August 2014 burned more than 32,000 acres between Ashland and Klamath Falls and remains one of the most volatile wildfire in Oregon, fire officials said.

And according to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber large fires like the Oregon Gulch Fire have become too common in Oregon over the past few years because of a lack of forest management.

On September 9, 2012, lightning struck 6 miles southwest of Sisters, Oregon. The forest at the origin near the Pole Creek Trailhead had been completely consumed. The Pole Creek Fire burned 26,584 acres within the Whychus Watershed in Deschutes National Forest.

According to the Executive Summary report by the Oregon Department of Forestry, fires in the area are increasing in size and frequency, and this trend is expected to continue.

And the most significant changes to the fire environment in the Pole Creek fire area include historic fire exclusion, extensive acreages of forests experiencing insect mortality, and inactive forest management, resulting in accumulation of wildfire fuels.

Protecting forests may mean no management to some people living in cities far from the forest. But in reality, active forest management is the most important means to protect Oregon’s forest capacity to continue producing so many benefits valued by Oregonians and all Americans. Management by experienced forest professionals not only decreases tragic losses to unwanted wildfire and forest health decline, but active management supports the balance sought by Oregonians today and future generations.

Over the last two decades, Oregon’s forests have faced historically significant change. Wildfire and insect and disease outbreaks have increased in size and intensity, transforming our forests in a relatively short time frame-our lifetimes.

Wildfires that once left a mosaic of openings that enriched the soil and revitalized trees and grass, now burn so hot that they kill thick-barked ponderosa pines and so severely damage soils that they cannot even absorb gently falling rain.

We owe more to future generations!

PART III

“What an irony it is that these living beings whose shade we sit in,
whose fruit we eat, whose limbs we climb, whose roots we water, to
whom most of us rarely give a second thought, are so poorly
understood. We need to come, as soon as possible, to a profound
understanding and appreciation for trees and forests and the vital
role they play, for they are among our best allies in the uncertain
future that is unfolding.”
― Jim RobbinsThe Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet

What are Solutions to the forest management problem?

With an assortment of tools and alternatives, we can proactively manage our forests, protect and enhance water quality and quantity, increase habitat diversity for wildlife and increase the vigor of trees. In addition, properly managed forests can provide income, reduce the risk of wildland fire, help protect trees against insects and diseases, and even increase the value of property.

Fires that involve entire landscapes are increasingly unacceptable within forest watersheds near human populations, and the lower the elevation, the more dire the consequences of these catastrophic events. Active forest management can fulfill an important role in how we help shape Oregon’s future forests.

With active management we can enhance forest resilience to fire, insects and diseases. Forest management also provides much-needed wood products and helps create many new job opportunities.

It is crucial that Oregon’s forests are managed to address current and emerging issues, including forest health, wildfire, watershed health, carbon sequestration, potential climate change, and biomass energy.

None of this can be attained by a hands-off, leave-it-to-nature approach!

Forest management goals require careful planning, collaboration and action.

Active forest management and preserving Oregon’s unparalleled natural beauty and outdoor heritage can both be achieved through balanced, common-sense policies. The Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act upholds this principle by addressing the systemic challenges in Oregon’s national forests, while at the same time maintaining environmental protections.

An acre of land can grow so much wood. One acre of fertile forestland may be able to sustain 500 little trees, or 100 big trees. Thinning is an effective and powerful forest management tool that promotes timber growth and restores forest health. When thinning a forest, slower growing or defective trees are removed to provide more space for the remaining trees to grow. The result is that available water and soil nutrients benefit those that remain, resulting in bigger, healthier trees in a shorter period of time.

Forests that are not managed too often are filled with small trees, trees with lower hanging branches and a greater volume of dry brush and dead logs on the forest floor. Fire can then easily spread up trees in what’s known as a “fuel ladder,” leading to a crown or canopy fire that in most cases kills virtually all the trees in a forest stand. And with all the surface fuel, everything just burns hotter, faster, more completely, and more uniformly – all of which are unnatural.

What are solutions that could benefit Oregon’s forests and the people who depend on them?

Remove excess fuels, and reduce tree densities in uncharacteristically crowded forests, and use prescribed fire to reduce surface fuels and promote native plant growth, reestablishing desirable vegetation and fuel conditions.

Thin most of the area with dense trees and create some openings in areas where fire historically burned more frequently. This will create diversity and long-term resilience.

Remove most of the dead and dying trees to allow for the growth of the next forest and reduce fuels available for fire.

Once the forest is thinned out and the fuels reduced, recreating conditions in forests before fires were suppressed, equals less dense forests then less intense fire. Then, when a wildfire burns through, it will drop to the ground, not jump to the crown. It will behave much as it historically did. (As noted by William Armstrong U.S.D.A Forest Service from the NOVA documentary Firewars)

Allowing active and sustainable forest management on federal lands will create jobs in rural communities. It will help create economic opportunities for our struggling rural counties while protecting federal forests for the future.

It will give rural residents a hand up instead of a handout. We know solutions are available that will allow a healthy harvest while also protecting all that we value about our forests. A solution could help prevent large scale fires and disease, while protecting streams, water, fish and wildlife for the future, for our children.

Jodi Schneider McNamee is a contributor to Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.

Jodi Schneider McNamee: Extraordinary combustion- Oregon Forests in Peril

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