A few stump holes continue to stubbornly smolder within the Whiskey Fire, one of several wildfire complexes in Douglas County from our record-breaking fire season.
The year 2013 went down in the books as the driest year on record in Roseburg and much of southwest Oregon. Local fires resulted in evacuations, massive firefighting costs, and substantial economic impacts to private property as well as threats to public safety.
As local landowners and federal managers finish tallying the impacts and costs from the previous season, fire managers facing another winter of unusually low snowpack and record low rainfall are beginning to brace for another busy fire season ahead. And hope for a wet spring.
In January, wildfires were reported in Douglas County due to escaped pile burns, an indication of the continued dry and warm conditions. In late January, the National Weather Service even issued a red-flag warning for dry and windy conditions. Recently, most of Oregon, including Douglas County, moved into severe drought conditions. Recent rains will be helpful, but it would take record levels of moisture to get to average conditions before spring.
As we ponder this unusual weather and the local impacts from a busy fire season, two questions may come to mind: Are these weather events linked to climate change? And can we expect to see more of this in the future? The short answer to these questions is: don’t know and yes.
Generally, it is not possible to conclusively link a single weather event, such as Douglas County’s 2013 fire season, to climate change, at least not outside the context of longer term trends. Climate, by definition, is the long-term trend of weather patterns over many years.
In terms of what to expect in the future, the best available science does demonstrate that in the future of the Pacific Northwest, we can generally expect a trend of reduced snowpacks, more drought conditions and hotter peak temperatures during the summer, resulting in earlier, longer, drier and warmer weather for most fire seasons.
The relationship of these factors and fire behavior is well established in science, as any local firefighter would tell you — really hot and dry conditions lead to larger more severe (and expensive) wildfires.
Regardless of the extent climate change may have played on last year’s fire season, we can find clues about what to expect in the future. According to a recent summary of anticipated climate impacts to Pacific Northwest forested-ecosystems by U.S. Forest Service scientists, we can expect larger and higher severity wildfires in the future with increased burned acreage — between 100 and 500 percent — by the end of the 21st century.
Although our ecosystems are well adapted to, and even dependent on, periodic wildfire, these fires will burn often larger and more severely than they did historically and threaten natural resource values such as timber, critical habitat, aesthetic/recreational values and stream quality.
Scientists are concerned that many ecosystems may reach a tipping point — a point at which recovery to a similar vegetation type is not possible following a wildfire or insect outbreak. In some cases forest types may even convert to non-forest types, such as grass or shrub lands severely limiting their potential to sequester carbon.
Healthy forests, those with relatively low stress levels to the dominant overstory, are most resilient to climate change and the host of secondary influences such as wildfire and widespread insect attacks. Healthy forests will also ultimately store more carbon in the long term. Restoration-based forest thinning can be designed to favor more drought-tolerant tree species, reduce stocking and competition stress, and increase structural diversity at multiple scales. This crucial work increases the resiliency and adaptive capacity of the forest to climate change and associated fire behavior.
It is also important to continue the work of preparing our forests, communities, and other values to the increase in predicted fire behavior and extent. Creating defensible space by clearing thick vegetation and fuels around homes and communities is a goal we should approach with increasing urgency.
Fuel breaks, placed in strategic places such as along roads and major ridge lines, provide opportunities for fire managers to fight undesirable wildfires in the future, protecting communities, critical habitat, and other resource values from fires of uncharacteristic size and severity. These breaks can also be useful for increasing the use of prescribed burning at larger scales.
Finally, it is important to continue to work together to find solutions that reduce carbon emissions. Conserving fuel used for transportation and using biomass heat in lieu of fossil fuels are ways society can reduce carbon emissions and slow the pace of climate change. That allows ecosystems and communities more time to adapt. Using wood as a building product in place of more carbon-intensive building materials, like steel and concrete, also achieves this goal.
Gabe Dumm of Roseburg is a fire ecologist and wildland fuels planner with the U.S. Forest Service and a member of the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.