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Forestry dean says 'no,' but prescribed burns, fuel reduction and better community planning are essential

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Observers keep watch over the Powerline Fire. Wildfires will be part of the Northwest for the foreseeable future, but good policy — public and private — can do much to help.After witnessing the disastrous wildfires of the past week, many metro-area residents are wondering what can be done to prevent catastrophic fires in the future.

To get answers, the Pamplin Media Group reached out to Tom DeLuca, who has been dean of Oregon State University's College of Forestry and director of the Oregon Forest Research Laboratory since June 30.

The good news is that DeLuca believes solutions exist for Oregon, even as the world's climate changes.CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Tom DeLuca, OSU dean of forestry

What follows is an edited version of our question-and-answer session, conducted by email:

What policies do OSU experts recommend that Oregon hasn't already adopted?

First is to support the ORS 526.005 regarding a certified burn-manager program. It was passed by the Legislature, but not funded for implementation. That would require funding and an organizational change to the Oregon Department of Forestry to fully implement a prescribed-burn program across the state where appropriate.

The other is to enhance ODF's fire-suppression mandate with a legislative mandate to provide organizational assistance to landscape efforts (public/private) for management efforts for forest health, wildlife habitat, watershed, and fire risk abatement/mitigation.

Another is to legislate agreements and cooperative efforts with partners of university and federal land and fire management. Spread the cooperative vehicle for non-profits, educational, research, state and federal.

Building codes should be revised based on research-developed structure-fuel models and fire behavior models for the built environment — and pre-plans developed for landscapes.

Perhaps of most importance to this policy recommendation is the fact that Oregon already has an unimplemented authority and legal framework for a Prescribed Burn Manager Program in ORS 526.360. This legislation, enacted in 1992, empowers the State Board of Forestry to establish a burn-manager certification program.

How can we reduce fuel levels or otherwise manage our state and national forests to reduce the possibility of catastrophic fire?

By utilizing all the tools in our tool box, including prescribed fire and managed fire.

First, it is essential to note that fire is a natural part of all Western forest ecosystems, some with frequent low-severity fires, some with infrequent higher-severity fires. We have not seen the scale and severity of fires burning on the west side of the Cascades since the turn of the prior century.

Part of this is that the forests on the west side are high severity, low-frequency fire regimes. This means they do not burn often, but when the conditions are right, the fires are widespread and high-severity because of the degree of fuel accumulation since prior wildfires some 100 to 200 years ago.

Next, there is the influence of climate change, which is shifting the frequency of these long, hot, dry, windy conditions to being more common.

Finally, there is management. Many of these forests were managed heavily during the last century (especially 1950s to late 1980s). Management on federal lands has declined in the '90s to today. Thinning operations as part of a long-term management strategy were greatly discontinued, resulting in increased stand density compared to natural older and gapped forests or highly managed forests.

That said, under these extreme weather conditions — hot, dry and windy — these differences in management will alter fire behavior, but will NOT stop these wildfires. The fuel reduction level required to greatly reduce the severity or spread of fires would be extreme, yet the fuel issue's scale is hugely more significant than the capacity to get out and get this type of intense work done. This type of fuel reduction work will be most effectively conducted near and around communities where lives and structures are at risk.

Eastside forests are a little more straight forward. … The west side is more tricky — I don't think we can thin or burn our way out of these types of fires. We need better community planning. More upfront, preventative, mitigation efforts are needed. More of an investment upfront for pre-planning on a landscape basis, cross-boundary. …

We have a planning process that has worked in the south-central part of the state. (Click here to see it.)

It needs a partnership, then a process. Then implementation via agreements.

Education and outreach is part of this — the need to better understand fire as a hazard that can be both beneficial and detrimental. …

How about private forest lands?

The private forest lands on the west side (primarily industrial) have mostly been under continual forest management, undergoing harvest followed by planting, pre-commercial thinning, first thinning, then harvest. Depending on the forest stage in the rotation, it will be more or less susceptible to stand-replacing fire. A uniform, relatively high-density forest stand will be highly susceptible to stand-replacing fire under today's climatic conditions.

So, more controlled burns would help?

Yes — absolutely! But we need to develop, support and fund a prescribed burn program at state, federal and private levels — with Oregon Prescribed Fire Council support, assistance and partnership. We need to educate to incorporate the prescribed burn concept into a cultural awareness to communities throughout the state. Then put the agreements in place, and then support and fund the integrated partnership of public and private to complete prescribed burning (and fuel reduction) on a scale large enough to make a difference.

Prescribed burning is also the most efficient, cost-effective management tool for initial projects and for maintenance projects into the future. That said, prescribed fire is relatively expensive and time intensive, so initial efforts will be best done in those priority areas near and around communities. This will help reduce fire severity and create more defensible space for firefighters under these conditions.

There is also the potential for allowing shoulder season fires to burn in areas far from communities. These will consume fuels at a scale difficult to accomplish through mechanical thinning and burning.

How do we educate the public on these issues?

Education and outreach (marketing) needs to be institutionalized within an infrastructure such as our OSU Extension organization. All cultural, age and social levels should receive training, education, and outreach.

It is important to engage the public regularly to address both a better understanding of fire and the management opportunities that are available to landowners and homeowners. The OSU Forest and Natural Resource Extension fire program is geared directly at this effort.

We must come to grips with the fact that fire is a natural part of the Western forest landscape. There will also be a need to accept that smoke during shoulder seasons associated with prescribed fire and active use of natural wildfire can greatly reduce risks during fire seasons.

Are there things that landowners on the forest edges can do to protect their properties and make them less vulnerable to fire?

Most definitely. The State Fire Marshal's office, local fire departments, state and federal fire agencies all have prevention guidelines. We need to address fire as a hazard that can be beneficial and detrimental within structures, surrounding structures, and across the landscape.

… It would be good to have the state and federal organizations adapt to programmatically support these landscape efforts and project implementation of public and private lands.

In general, what can ordinary individuals do to help?

Educate yourself, do not accept myopic views on fires and management, and vote accordingly.

Are we doomed in Oregon to seeing these catastrophes every few years, as the world gets warmer, or are there real solutions out there?

No, not at all. But we do need to adjust to more fire in our future. Unfortunately, the conditions created by climate change will slowly shift west-side fire regimes from infrequent high-severity to a more frequent mixed-severity. In the meantime, we will have more frequent high-severity fires in areas that have not experienced fire in years and have heavy fuel accumulation. Improved protection can be achieved with more intensive fuel reduction strategies near communities and fire-wise treatments in and around structures.

Dr. Tom DeLuca is Oregon State University's dean of the College of Forestry and director of the Oregon Forest Research Laboratory. Previously, he served as dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana. A highly cited scholar, he has published more than 100 refereed research papers, including in Science and Nature.

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