Sep 12, 2017
Fighting Central Oregon Wildfire with Fire
Authors: Eric Flowers, Bend Magazine
Editor’s note: This blog contains excerpts of an article originally published in Bend Magazine.
Over the past several years, [Pete] Caligiuri, a Yale-educated forest ecologist, sat alongside loggers, environmentalists, scientists and recreation advocates as part of the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project — one of the first of its kind in the country. The goal was to hammer out a management strategy for a roughly 257,000-acre swath of forest just west of Bend, stretching from Sunriver to Sisters. It’s a contiguous sea of emerald pine spires painted against a dramatic mountain backdrop of snow-capped Cascade wilderness peaks that serves as a playground for locals and visitors alike. The pine forest, a mix of majestic red-barked ponderosa and lodgepole pine and fir trees, is deeply connected to the region’s economic past and its future. It was once home to one of the most extensive and intensive logging operations on the West Coast, a rough and tumble business that fueled Bend’s sawmill economy for nearly a century. Today the big trees are mostly gone, as are the mills.
The forest is largely quiet, a haven for wildlife and a hub of recreation that drives a $500 million local tourism economy, based on exploring rather than exploiting the forest. But that’s the glass-half-full version. Come July and August, the forest west of Bend is also a tinderbox of dense trees and brushes that, some say, is a ticking time bomb of sorts. The huge stockpile of fuels in an overly dense forest is ripe for a wildfire. The impact of such an event would be catastrophic: Valuable wildlife habitat destroyed, hundreds of miles of popular hiking and biking trails obliterated, scores of homes that have been built on the ever-expanding fringes of Bend and Sisters at risk.
“All the climate indications suggest that we are going to have longer summers, uncertain precipitation, [and] potentially longer, hotter fire seasons. So, if anything, fire is going to become a more dominant force once again, one that we are not able to control,” said Caligiuri. [ … ]
The DCFP was one of the first plans to be funded under the federal Collaborative Forest Restoration bill that Congress passed in 2009. Since then the program has grown, from ten to more than twenty collaboratives, mostly around the West, where the timber battles have been the most pitched. There are two more in eastern Oregon, one on the Freemont-Winema Forest near Lakeville and another in the Blue Mountains on Malheur National Forest land. Another independent, community-based collaborative is underway in Prineville. By most accounts the projects have been a success, helping longtime adversaries sit down in the same room to find common ground, certainly something that some participants didn’t think existed at the outset. They have also created a blueprint of sorts for how to manage at least a slice of our vast inventory of public lands at a time when there is little consensus among interest groups about how to do that. It’s a particularly pressing matter for the Forest Service, which is tasked with managing millions of acres of public land with a shrinking pool of resources.
“I would hope that we can use what we’ve learned and put it to work on the entire Deschutes National Forest,” said John Allen [supervisor of Deschutes National Forest]. “This could be a model for how we look at community forests. And it’s really a partnership between the community and the National Forest.” [ … ]
In a dry forest ecosystem like that found on the east slope of the Cascades, “trying to stop fire is about as foolhardy as trying to stop a hurricane,” said Caligiuri.
On the other side, there is a growing body of research that suggests forests need fire like rivers need a good flood every so often. Healthy forests can not only withstand fire, but use them to regenerate. Fire is part of a cycle that sparks rebirth and helps maintain the ecological balance, creating wildlife habitat from burned wood while removing fuels that, when allowed to accumulate, can contribute to so-called catastrophic wildfires.
“There is a whole body of research around fire as part of the system,” said Oregon State University’s Nicole Strong [forester and researcher]. “We are rethinking the relationship with fire and recognizing that we all moved into a fire-adapted landscape. It needs fire, and we haven’t allowed that for over 100 years.” [ … ]
On a recent tour of the forest area, Caligiuri walked gingerly on a surgically repaired ankle, a casualty of a mountain biking accident in the same forest. He led me through an area that had been commercially thinned, just west of Bend and adjacent to the Cascade Lakes Highway. Just a few hundred feet from the Widgi Creek Golf Course and housing developments, the Forest Service, on the recommendation of the DCFP, employed a mix of tree removal and brush mowing to reduce overall vegetation density. The agency followed up with a controlled (or prescribed) burn — a low-intensity fire designed to mimic some of the natural fire activity that historically occurred in this type of ecosystem. The result is primarily open ponderosa pine, almost park-like. Bunches of pale green native grasses and shrubs have returned to the forest floor. What’s missing is the dense understory seen in so many other places that can transport otherwise innocuous flames from the forest floor to the canopy where it spreads like, well, wildfire. Eliminating these fuels is one of the easiest ways to fight wildfire proactively.
The DCFP is more than just a wildfire prevention strategy. The goal was to recreate the kind of forest, or at least the kind of forest conditions, that existed here prior to the arrival of settlers.
“It’s not that we are trying to go back to the past,” said Caligiuri. “What we are trying to say is we can learn from the past. So that becomes the white lines on either side of the road that keeps you more or less in the center of the lane. History becomes one line, and the future, climate change and the science around adaptation become another line.”