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Using small fire as a tool allows the forest to avoid massive, devastating, life-altering wildfires

PROSPECT, Oregon — I was not prepared for it. The smoke was so thick that I couldn't see across the small Oregon lake. Trees encroached upon the waterline, the soupy ethereal smoke spilling from their branches.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Looking back on my first serendipitous encounters with a hard-to-catch saltwater fish In search of the elusive starry flounder.My eyes stung, my nose ran; I could hardly breathe. I'd likely overdosed on allergy medicine, but that was no help. I took off my old, faded T-shirt and cut off the bottom foot or so. I walked to the icy feeder creek a few hundred yards away, soaked the well-loved fabric and wrapped it around my face. The wet cotton served to filter out some of the acrid particulates compromising the air quality while preparing me for a future world in which I'd be wearing a mask whenever in public.

Crowdsourced news on Twitter was still in its infancy, and if I'd known the fire was that close to Medco Pond (just 20 miles away), I likely wouldn't have driven so far to fish. After spending the week before trolling for salmon in Puget Sound amid crisp, coastal air, coming home to the stifling heat and ominous darkened skies dampened my spirit, and I looked to reclaim some semblance of normalcy.

Growing up in southern Oregon, we'd have smoke for a week or so most summers. I kept meticulous fishing journals from age 13 (2004) onward, and I noted several times where it was smoky outside, but it wasn't every year, nor was it a long-term affair. And it was never this smoky.

It was July 27, 2013. I had just graduated from college, and it was the first summer in which the carcinogenic blanket settled on southern Oregon for the duration of the summer. It has repeated every year since, dousing the land with ruin from July through October.

Forests

The forests of the Cascades, Siskiyous and the Coast Range are incredibly unique. While these arboreal havens of surreality once existed all over the world, the delay in high-density settlement of the United States and Canada and the slow move from east to west enabled our forests to escape the industrial machine that deforested most of the Old World.

Less than 50 years after Oregon's statehood, concepts of conservation and preservation already had taken root in the public consciousness. Clear-cutting entire tracts of forest for conversion to farms and pastureland still happened in the former Oregon Territory, but on a much smaller scale than it had in the south or east, allowing many of the old growth forests to survive the onslaught.

With the Gold Rush driving most westward settlers to California, a much smaller contingent of Americans found themselves settling farther north in the more desirable regions of present-day Oregon and Washington.

For more than a century, logging was one of the principal industries of the Pacific Northwest. Though many states are more forested by percentage of total land area than Oregon and Washington (both of which are about 50% forest today), the forests of say, Maine (90% forest), don't come close to the scope and size of the PNW, due to the size of our trees.

In his book, "The Golden Spruce," author John Valliant writes "... these immense trees (in) the Northwest's forests support more living tissue — by weight — than any other ecosystem — including the equatorial jungle."

More living tissue means more earning potential, but it also means more fuel.

Management

The natural equivalent of New York City or Tokyo is a logger's paradise. A single acre of mature Pacific Northwest forest can easily hold three or four times as many board feet of lumber as an acre in Maine or Quebec due to the immense size of our trees that greedily drink up the ample rainfall.

The bounty of our forests has driven a booming logging industry that, even accounting for the collapse of the lumber market in the late 1980s and slow climb of the early '90s, still represents some $10 billion to $15 billion annually in Oregon and Washington.

For the past century, our forests have been managed for production. Mixed forests of pine, spruce, cedar and fir were cut down and replaced with single-species lots of identical seedlings. Not only did this slowly compromise the habitat and gentrify the flora and fauna capable of surviving in uniform forests, but when paired with fire suppression, it enabled these single-species forests to build dense undergrowth below a canopy of trees managed for the maximization of total board feet.

Before human influence, fires would burn away that undergrowth before it became too dense, clearing out younger trees and shrubs but allowing the larger trees to survive the low-heat flames that quickly burned out and refreshed the landscape. This would allow Ponderosa pine and giant sequoia to grow to such colossal proportions while promoting the growth of grasses and forbs and fungi.

When this cycle was interrupted, when fires weren't allowed to burn away the excess fuel and detritus littering the forest floor, ready-to-burn fuel was slowly stockpiled that has led to what is arguably the worst wildfire season the Northwest has ever seen in 2020.

Sure, California has long been plagued with wildfires, but it is a massive desert. Oregon and Washington — particularly on the heavily forested western slope of the Cascades — see more rainfall than most of the contiguous United States. There's no reason we should be living in fear of the wildlands that make our home so green and beautiful.

It's time to change forest management and begin to use small fires as a tool to keep the devastating, ground-sterilizing, life-altering wildfires at bay, so we can Keep Oregon (and Washington) Green. In the meantime, stay safe and pray these fires can be doused quickly.

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