The timing was coincidental, but couldn’t have been better for the Umpqua Forestry Coalition, a loose-knit group of people interested in the woods.
A few days after fires sparked by lightning July 26 began spreading rapidly in Douglas County, the coalition hosted an already scheduled field trip into the Umpqua National Forest.
The coalition wanted to show how controlled burns could create gaps in fire-feeding trees and brush and prevent the kind of intense blazes hopscotching from tree to tree near Glendale and Tiller.
“One of the worst conditions is contiguous fuel,” said Javier Goirigolzarri, a private forester and coalition organizer.
“We have seen solid fuel conditions throughout the Umpqua National Forest. If a fire starts, there is no opportunity to stop it. Closed canopies trap heat and ignite a crown fire. They are frightening to stop and so dangerous. This is effectively what’s happening now,” he said.
The forestry coalition notes that the suppression of naturally occurring fires has made forests dense. When fires, like the Douglas Complex fires and Whiskey Complex fires, get out of control, they burn more intensely and spread more rapidly.
Controlled burns, according to the coalition, could make spaces that act as fire breaks, while also creating different types of habitat and encouraging species diversity.
The coalition’s field trip included stops at several places in the national forest where, according to the forestry coalition, controlled burns have either been effectively used or would be beneficial.
“The Umpqua National Forest is about a million acres and has an unusually high amount of fire risk,” said Alan Baumann, a retired forester for the Umpqua National Forest.
Forestry coalition members argue that using fire to reduce vegetation is an underused tool in the national forest.
Forest Service spokeswoman Cheryl Caplan acknowledged controlled burns are not common in the Umpqua.
Burns are expensive to conduct because firefighters must stand by to keep fires from escaping, she said.
“Fire crews would be present and would have to have a lot of resources there to make sure the fire burns where we want it to,” Caplan said.
It is also difficult for forest and weather conditions to align, she said.
“We prefer to see mechanical treatment first, then slash burning,” Caplan said. “We are not adverse to the idea. It’s just expensive.”
Apart from costs, conservation groups and timber companies have a hard time agreeing when to use controlled fire.
Plus, shifting forest policies contribute to projects started not being completed, said Jay Carlson, retired Bureau of Land Management Roseburg District manager.
“Bureaucratic and political attention spans dropped off,” he said.
Some conservation groups approve the use of controlled fire, if it is used to restore forest health. Josh Laughlin, campaign director for Cascadia Wildlands, said federal agencies should let natural fires run their course in remote areas.
“There is a real opportunity to restore forest health in overly dense stands by reintroducing prescribed fire,” Laughlin said. “We should embrace the role wildfire plays on the landscape.”
Andy Geissler, Western Oregon field forester for the American Forest Resource Council, said timber companies don’t want to see good timber stands burned. However, controlled burns of poor quality trees can help stop wildfires from spreading to valuable timber.
“Our main concern with the forest is that the regeneration plan has been abandoned the last 20 to 25 years. Where are trees growing for the next generation?” Geissler said. “Maybe we should be nurturing timber stands rather than burning them.”
• Reporter Jessica Prokop can be reached at 541-957-4209 and firstname.lastname@example.org.