Paul Kangas: Forest Wildfires, Loss Of Life, Property; Smoke. A Time For Action

Professional Forester Paul Kangas offers the following to encourage dialog on our crisis of wildfire and smoke.


It’s not “business as usual” in managing forests, wildlands and wildfires after two years of being surrounded by wildfires and choked by smoke. The public, businesses and our life demands unprecedented changes that match the immense scope of the problem.

The scope and complexity of the problem needs to be defined A.S.A.P. for everyone, by experts and those responsible for managing forests, wildlands and wildfires. Someone needs be responsible for beginning the process.  Consider a coalition of county commissioners from SW Oregon and Northern California and other officials and public, with political and technical support from the BLM and USFS.

The following are suggestions for discussion, planning and action:

1)  Broadening the use of the States “Firewise”program to more cities and extending its use into more populated areas of the Wildland Urban–forest interface.

2)  Planning for and installation of fuel breaks near cities and in more populated areas of the wildland urban-forest interface, particularly done along roads and other anchor areas having access.  Some roads may be needed to be constructed in key protection areas.

3)  Develop an assessment process to evaluate fuel reduction benefits caused by recent wildfires with the goal of performing supplemental fuel and forest treatments in those areas over the next few years to reduce the risk and intensity of new and recurring wildfires.  Modifications and treatments are needed in areas like the KALMIOPSIS WILDERNESS AREA; now people unfriendly and likely not animal friendly, posing unacceptable wildfire danger and pumping smoke into a large share of Oregon.  

The funding of fuel reduction and forest thinning projects cannot rely on the sustainability of federal grant funding. There will be extreme competition for Federal grant funding from all over the western region and not enough funding to satisfy the needs.  The best and most reliable source of FUNDING WILL NEED TO BE FROM TIMBER HARVEST, mostly from federal lands which could coincide with fuel breaks in areas and along roads needing forest thinning and fuel reduction.


We have been held hostage to toxic air from forest wildfires for the last two summers.  It undoubtedly has already affected our health, social life, and the environment in varying and unquantified degrees.  The measurement of the economic effect on many businesses and industries has been shown to be significant but likely understated, particularly if projected into the future.  It is likely that we are in store for continued and unprecedented wildfire problems with loss of lives, property and pervasive impacts from smoke.  Unprecedented impacts and effects from wildfires will require unprecedented solutions and action.  WE HAVE GOTTEN BY WITH DEFENSE AFTER PUNTING THE BALL FOR YEARS.  THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE LAST TWO YEARS DEMANDS A NEW PLAN AND PROACTIVE APPROACH.

There have been several gatherings of affected citizens and businesses, government officials and wildfire experts that have given input on the issues and proposed solutions.  Many citizens have had written opinions published in the Medford Mail Tribune describing their thoughts and frustration with the lack of real action toward the smoke problem that has affected every person, animal and plant that breathes and every outdoor, exposed surface. The Tribune is featuring an outstanding and informative series of articles to keep the heat on experts, politicians, government agencies (or anyone) to provide a pathway, or to begin a structured, coordinated dialogue, toward progress. (A.S.A.P.– PLEASE).

WHO SHOULD TAKE THE LEAD?  It would be appropriate in matching the massive acreages of land and the immense scope of the wildfire problems and possible solutions for federal elected officials, congressional bodies and administrative agency leaders to take responsibility for addressing solutions.  However, to date, those people, bodies and agencies have not shown a common recognition or movement toward developing a political and/or organizational inertia, commensurate with the scope of the problems.  As a starting point in developing a ground swell of organizational and political awareness, I suggest formation of a coalition of political leaders and experts from some of the potentially and highly impacted Oregon and Northern California counties: Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Coos, Curry, Klamath, Lane and Deschutes in Oregon and several counties in California, with technical support from the BLM and USFS.

In order to provide real solutions to reducing the effects of wildfire and smoke in this and other regions of the Western United States, requires some understanding of the complexity and the scope of the technical, political and administrative aspects of the problem.  The scope and complexity lies in factors such as:

1) The current extent, rate and predictions of warming temperatures and its effects on weather patterns and events which cause:

  1. a) Unusual and unseasonal weather patterns and events, high winds and lower rainfall.
  2. b) Increased drying of flammable fuels in grasslands and forests.
  3. c) Increasing forest tree mortality caused by drought stress and forest tree insects.

2)  Unprecedented and increasing levels of forest tree stocking, ground and ladder fuels in most of our forests.  The high level of live plant occupancy in forests exacerbates the effects of lower rainfall for all forest plant species albeit at different levels for individual plants.

3)  The federal forests managed by the BLM and the USFS represent a large ownership in counties and States.  These forests ownership proportions and present management laws, mandates and policies present some of the following issues:

  1. a) The expansive, contiguous and large scattered, forested landscapes are generally, heavily overstocked with trees, ground and ladder fuels. Forest management treatments to thin forest trees and reduce hazardous, flammable fuels are grossly inadequate relative to the acreage in need of treatments and are generally not always strategically placed to reduce wildfire risk.
  2. b) Significant portions of the BLM and USFS landscapes and forest lands are prohibited or severely restricted from active forest management, forest harvesting and thinning and/or fuel reduction by laws, regulations, management plans and policies.  For instance, agency Resource Management

Plans, through land allocation processes, have allocated a major proportion of the federal forest landscape, resources and habitats to land use or habitat values that place minimal consideration of wildfire risk from high forest stocking and fuel levels on the land use values for those allotments.  Therefore, there may be little of no authority, support or plan to initiate landscape or forest management treatments in those allotments, which are carried over, in large extent, to the allocation, even after original values are significantly marginalized by wildfire.  Some examples of landscapes and forests affected by laws, regulations and management allocations that prohibit or severely restrict active landscape or forest management practices include: riparian management areas, wildlife management areas, special botanical areas, wilderness and wilderness study areas.

  1. c) In the past, USFS managers have used a policy to employ limited firefighting resources and tactics on some wildfires in remote areas, monitoring the fires advancement to determine if more aggressive approach may be needed.  This approach is often the best alternative when maintaining firefighter safety is paramount over a direct attack approach.  It is also the best alternative when firefighting resources are lacking due to higher priority wildfires being fought in rural-urban interface areas.  This policy is one factor that has resulted in large areas of burned forests in un-populated areas.  Another factor in creating larger fires in remote forested areas (and also in non-remote areas) is the availability of road access.  A common approach in using indirect firefighting tactics for wildfires is to set fires along roads to “burn-out” fuels between a road, or other accessible zone, and the approaching wildfire.  Depending on the distance between accessible zones, usually roads, the “burn-out” areas can be huge if there are large distances between roads.

Current Thinking and Approaches to Manage and Reduce Wildfires and Resulting Smoke.

The themes that are prevalent in most of the proposed solutions to reduce the effects of wildfire and smoke are as follows:  1) Apply all reasonable policies, procedures, tactics and equipment to provide initial attack and continued management to extinguish all wildfires that may be a threat to humans, animals, natural resources or property.  (Wildfire management similar to the policies, procedures and tactics employed by the Oregon Department of Forestry as recently described in the Mail Tribune).

2) Thinning of trees and reduction of fuels in overstocked forests and other flammable landscapes.

3) Prescribed burning of fuels done under the guidelines for the management of smoke and in periods of the year outside of the usual fire season (similar to the findings of historical burning done by Native Americans as described in recently published research by Dr. Kerry Metlan et. al, sponsored by The Nature Conservancy.


The scope and complexity of the problem demands leadership, planning, coordination, funding and implementation at MACRO levels by government, industry, private landowners, interested and affected citizens.

The Ashland Forest Resiliency (AFR) project is a good example of a successful coordination of the City of Ashland, the USFS, private contractors and the public to conduct forest thinning and fuel reduction on public and City lands to reduce the wildfire risk to City and USFS properties.  Even though the AFR results have been and continue to be successful, the cost to the Federal Government are extremely high and not likely sustainable over other large and strategic areas of forestland needing treatment.  The USFS fuel reduction and harvesting project in the Applegate area (also very effective) featured in the Medford Mail Tribune on 11-18-18 quoted estimated costs for fuel treatments and tree harvesting at $14 million and income at $2 million.  A major problem with these site specific projects is that they need to cover numerous strategic locations, most of which remain to be determined by planning on a regional area scope.

SO—WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CRITERIA FOR SUCCESSFUL PLANS AND ACTIONS:  a) Actions that could have the broadest level of success on an area basis.  b) Actions that could have the greatest impact over time.  c)  Actions that would emphasize protection of property in the urban areas and the urban-forest interface.  d)  Actions that would generate a level of sustainable funding for re-investment into more action.  The following proposals are recommended for consideration, discussion and action planning:

1)  Cities assess the forests and fuels in and adjacent to their city limits for the potential of implementing practices like the “Fire wise” programs being implemented in Ashland and Jacksonville.  These assessments should take into account, forest density, fuel loads, topography and historical fire behavior for the area near the city.

2)  Counties could provide leadership and funding to extend the “Fire wise” practices of forest and fuels management to homes and properties outside of city limits and into the urban-forest interface.  The Oregon Department of Forestry has provided some funding for landowners in these areas but many of them remain at extreme risk from wildfire.  One example of an area of extreme risk is north of Jacksonville and west of Old Stage Road and Military Road.

3)  Plans need to be developed by cities, counties, state and federal government and landowners for the identification of locations for the installation of strategic fuel breaks.  The size, location and configuration of fuel breaks would depend on the area to be protected, fuel volumes and locations in the vicinity, topography, access and historical weather and fire footprints.  Plans could include the construction of some access roads.

4)  Federal land management agencies and industrial forest owners should begin a process to assess the areas burned by wildfires in the last few years to lead to implementation plans for forest and fuels management projects in those areas.  The goals of such projects would be to supplement the successes wildfires produced in fuel reductions and modified, positive forest conditions that could lead to a reduction in future wildfire risk and intensity.  Federal land managers already enter wildfire areas immediately after the fire is controlled to plan to assess the need for the implementation of erosion reduction treatments.

The assessment for implementing forest and fuel treatments to reduce future wildfire risk would be much more extensive, expensive and ongoing.    The assessment would determine the following:

1)  Determining the type, location and area of flammable ground fuels and trees consumed and remaining on the wildfire area.  2)  Determining the type, location and area of flammable ground fuels (such as manzanita brush) determined to re-populate the landscape.  3)  The possible area and prescriptions for conducting tree harvesting for the removal of merchantable, recently killed or damaged trees. 4) The determination of location, area and density of unmerchantable tree snags produced in recent or past wildfires.

Maintaining the gains in forest and fuel modifications provided by past wildfires provides several real and potential benefits along with many complicated and controversial challenges.  Some of the benefits of treating past wildfire areas are:

  1. a) Potential reduction in the cost of initial forest thinning, fuel reduction treatments and future maintenance costs.
  2. b) There usually is a period of several years before past wildfire revegetate and become ripe for another wildfire, giving time for assessments of revegetation progress and treatments to be conducted.
  3. c) Possible reduction in the size and intensity of future fires ignited in the original wildfire area.  This may be particularly significant in areas that are often subject to recurring lightning storms that often occur in patterns on the landscape, particularly at higher elevations.  Two examples where the suggested treatments may have been effective are:

1)  The recurring lightening caused fires in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness area:  Silver fire, Biscuit fire, Chetco fire and the 2018 Klondike fire.  2)  The Timbered Rock fire followed by the 2018 Miles fire.

Obviously, there are many major and controversial issues with all of these suggestions, some of which are stated here:

1)  Large costs for planning, public involvement, field assessments and treatments.

2)  All of the recommended treatments would potentially involve multiple landowners with different political and funding authorities and financing, land and forest management objectives and advocacy support.  Cooperative agreements and coordination of treatments and funding would be necessary for consistency in planning and treatment effectiveness.

3)  The past multiple and expansive wildfires in the KALMIOPSIS WILDERNESS AREA pose a particular dilemma as do other large contiguous areas with minimal access in fire prone, high risk areas. If we are

honest with the facts and the events of the last several years, given the temperature increases, dead trees and fuel loading (much of which has been caused by past wildfires), added weather risk posed by

the Chetco winds, inaccessibility and immense size of the Kalmiopsis, the conclusion seems evident that SOMETHING HAS TO CHANGE IN THE KALMIOPSIS.  Another fire like the Chetco fire of 2017 could go through Brookings to the coast and may have done so in 2017 but for a miraculous reduction of the Chetco winds and successful firefighting tactics being employed from existing forest roads east of Brookings.  A strong case could be made for breaking the acreage up into smaller wilderness areas.


THE IMMENSE SCOPE OF THE WORK TO BE DONE, OVER SEVERAL WESTERN STATES AND IN THE SHORTEST POSSIBLE TIME, DEMANDS SUSTAINABLE, ADDITIONAL FUNDING SOURCES OTHER THAN FEDERAL GRANTS.  Funding could come from many sources to supplement federal government grants such as: insurance companies, industries, philanthropic organizations, private citizens or others.  Given the high, recent and growing costs of fire control in the Western United States, a moderate, proportional investment of that cost from several sources to be used for preventative action, would

Seem appropriate.  Federal grants, in particular, will not be sustainable or adequate for any one state or region because of political and budgetary competition.  Any supplementary funding sources will also not be sustainable or adequate.  THE PRIMARY SOURCE OF FUNDS WOULD BE FROM TIMBER HARVEST.  Harvests areas, including fuel reductions would need to occur in pre-identified, strategic areas such as in in urban-forest interfaces.  They would likely have to be a located in conjunction with roads or other accessible terrain.  In order to be most effective on an area basis, they would be located on public and private property, which adds a large degree of complication.  Funds derived from timber harvest on federal lands and returned to the county, could be re-invested into funds for additional treatments.

I respectfully offer this report in the hopes that it may stir thinking and result in meaningful discussions from a broad segment of people who understand the scope of the issues that we are faced with and have the political, financial and organizational means to create corrective processes to solve our problems with wildfires and smoke.


Paul Kangas

Professional Forester and Consultant

NW Forest Resources Management

[email protected]


Paul Kangas: Forest Wildfires, Loss Of Life, Property; Smoke. A Time For Action