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September 25, 2013
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Guest column: What's really contributing to catastrophic forest fires

Heat plus drought plus excessive fuel loading plus excessive ladder fuels plus dense tree stands equals conflagrations like never seen before by humans since humans created this condition starting back in the 1890s.

For tens of thousands of years, natural lightning-caused fire was a normal part of our forest ecology, cleansing the forest of the perpetual accumulation of fire-prone fuels with low-burning fire that reduced the “fuel load” that today enables catastrophic wildfire.

As such, most North American forests became “fire adapted” meaning the trees and plants that survived these low-burning fires were more fire resistant and became the forest vegetation that Native Americans and early European settlers inhabited.

Over the past century, human intervention into this natural process through fire suppression and reduced harvesting has allowed forest fuels to accumulate unchecked. Green plant life continually grows, and without the cleansing effect of natural fire, fuels accumulate to the point that once a fire starts, the fuel load creates an intense fire that in many cases is unnaturally destructive. Trees and plants normally not capable of surviving low-burning fire have been allowed to regenerate and become a substantial part of current forest vegetation. When fires do start, that enormous fuel load creates fires so hot and intense that they destroy much of the living plant life in our woodlands.

After catastrophic fires, forests are left with soils depleted of many naturally occurring nutrients and are stripped bare of the vegetation that normally filters precipitation as it makes its way into the watersheds, our sources of clean water. Barren soils exposed to precipitation allow sediments and mud slides that contaminate streams, destroying salmon spawning gravel beds. Unchecked rainwater washes downed trees, boulders and other debris into streams, clogging and choking out aquatic life.

Dead trees remaining after fires become targets and fuel for subsequent lightning strikes and become ignition sources for the next series of wildfires. Subsequent fires burn even hotter, as most re-growth after wildfire are flashy fuels such as grasses and extremely flammable brush species. Snags weakened by fire are a serious hazard to humans.

The elimination of natural fire in our forest ecology can no longer be ignored. We must become more effective in managing our forests to mitigate the potential for devastating wildfire. Each year we burn more acres in wildfires, spend more money fighting fires, put more firefighters in harm’s way, and spend less money on managing the forests. In 2012 alone, our government spent almost $2 billion to fight fires, yet spent less than $500 million on fuels reduction projects. The wildfires so far in 2013 will have costs for fighting fire, loss of life and property much higher than 2012.

Our governmental agencies hire trained foresters, biologists, and other knowledgeable professionals to oversee the management of our forests. Under current practices and regulations, federal forest managers are unable to carry out many proposals on forest management given the conflicting regulations and litigation that seems to inhibit efforts toward effective management. Single species management requirements also limits effective practices needed in the diverse ecologies of our forests. It is time to get beyond the current gridlock that blocks effective management in our forests and allow our forest managers to do the work they know needs to be done to protect the long term interests of our forests, our fish and wildlife, and the watersheds that provide us with clean water.

Our legislators need to understand the devastating effect the current quagmire of regulation and litigation has on the long-term management of our natural resources. We need legislation that frees up managers to do their jobs effectively. The problem is not with local forest managers, it is our Congress and Administration that fail to recognize the current gridlock and to focus on solutions to provide active fuels management to mimic the effects natural fire had in maintaining fuel loads at reasonable levels. The health of our forests for future generations must be the primary objective. We must regain control of the current fire situation that plaques our forests.

Wes Melo of Roseburg holds a forestry degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He is now retired after spending 16 years as vice president of operations at Ingram Book Co. He also fought wildland and structure fires in four states. He is a member of the Umpqua Forestry Coalition and Communities for Healthy Forests. He can be reached at wesmelo@charter.net.

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The News-Review Updated Sep 25, 2013 11:44AM Published Oct 9, 2013 06:52PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.