Different management styles for the forest, pre- and post-catastrophic wildfires, were the key talking points during the Aug. 22 “Return to the Burn” tour of the Bland Mountain and Stouts Creek fire areas.
About 50 people participated in the tour that was organized by Communities for Healthy Forests, a nonprofit group whose goal is to provide education about restoring and rehabilitating forests. Featured speakers were Craig Kintop, a silviculturist with the Bureau of Land Management office in Roseburg, David Warnack, deputy forest supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Umpqua National Forest, Phil Adams, timberlands director with Roseburg Resources Co.; and Patrick Skrip, district manager for Douglas Forest Protective Association.
They agreed that measures can be taken to lessen the chance of a spark turning into a wildfire. But they acknowledged that public and private land managers have different restrictions and policies that govern how they are able to manage forestlands.
They also agreed that fires, no matter what size, need to be put out as soon as possible. It was emphasized that 93% of wildfires in the Douglas District of Southwestern Oregon are limited to less than 10 acres.
But that leaves a few each year that are not immediately contained. Those fires that do spread quickly and burn out of control can create their own firestorm and weather. They are so intense and hot that they are devastating to most everything in their paths, no matter what the forest management has been.
These catastrophic fires have many negative impacts: Cost of fighting the fire, loss of recreational activities, loss of the value of present and future merchantable timber, and leftover snags and other dead wood that can be fuel for a future fire. There’s also the loss or threat of loss of structures in the rural interface and to human life, both firefighters and residents.
In addition to summer lightning strikes causing fires when forest conditions are most dry, history shows that the risk of fire is increased with more people living in remote, rural areas. It was stated 70% of the fires in the Douglas District are human-caused.
Bland Mountain had a 10,300-acre fire in 1987 and then another fire of 4,700 acres in 2004. The Stouts Creek fire in 2015 burned 26,000 acres. All three fires were human-caused.
The burned forested areas are on the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains and east of the rural communities of Canyonville and Azalea.
In addition to many acres of forest experiencing their first burn from these fires, thousands of acres suffered a second burn or third burn from the fires or other smaller ones caused by lightning strikes.
Another example of overlapping fires is the 48,679-acre Douglas County Complex in 2013 and this year’s 13,000-acre Milepost 97 fire.
In discussing the cost of these fires, Skrip explained that $1 million was spent on fighting the 10,000-acre Bland Mountain fire in 1987. In the past 30 years, however, firefighting costs have rapidly risen. Suppressing the 26,000-acre Stouts Creek fire in 2015 cost $37 million and earlier this month, $23 million was spent on containing the Milepost 97 fire of 13,000 acres.
“Fires in Western Oregon can be long and expensive,” Skrip said.
To decrease those types of fires, Adams said Roseburg Resources Co.’s approach includes being active members of the Douglas and Coos forest protective associations, contributing staff, equipment and other supplies to firefighting efforts, working with and monitoring logging crews to make sure they are adhering to fire prevention regulations, and eliminating snags and brush that can provide fuel for a wildfire. When there is fire on its lands, the company quickly salvages the burned timber before pests can further lessen its value.
“A green forest is more desirable than a black-and-dead forest,” said Adams. “We don’t let a fire start to begin with. But when there is fire, our focus is on suppression, keeping it small.”
Warnack said the Forest Service has had to balance its time, money and workforce in its management of public forests. It must also adhere to regulations set at the highest federal levels.
He said there are some projects in the Umpqua National Forest where controlled burns of ground fuels are being done during the colder, wetter months and some younger trees are being thinned so the forest isn’t so dense. He said that approach has been tested in other areas “and they bear out with less intense fires so we know it’s an effective approach.”
“We want to make the entire landscape more resilient, less susceptible, to large scale, high intensity fire,” said Warnack.
He said 20 million board-feet of timber was salvaged following 2017 fires in the Umpqua National Forest and a little less was salvaged following the 2018 fire season. But the Forest Service faces the dilemma of putting its efforts into salvage and cleanup of burned areas or into fire prevention treatments of unburned areas. The Forest Service must also put effort into its road system, keeping it clear and safe for travel for the public who wants to visit the back country.
The Bureau of Land Management has seen its management objectives for the O&C Lands change over the past decades to provide habitat for the spotted owl. Following the 1987 Bland Mountain fire, BLM salvaged 41 million board-feet of timber, but then following the 2004 Bland fire, there were very few salvage sales.
“Economic recovery is not the mission,” said Kintop of BLM’s timber management approach. “There have been land use allocation changes.”
In 1937, O&C Lands were classified as timberlands to be managed for permanent and sustainable forest production with trees being sold, cut, removed and then seedlings planted. Additionally, watersheds were to be protected, stream flows regulated, recreational facilities and activities provided and contributions made to the economic stability of local communities and industries.
There have been changes over the years. Today, on BLM’s land that suffered from the Stouts Creek fire, dead trees cover the mountainsides beginning 100 yards or so from the road system. Road zones were cleared, providing for safe vehicle traffic, but the rest of the BLM land was not. Douglas fir seedlings were planted in the burn, but the snags and woody ground fuel do increase the chance of another fire, putting those young trees and adjoining properties in jeopardy.
With the public agencies either not being allowed or not being able to do enough fire prevention work on their timberlands, the private owners such as Roseburg Resources are concerned about future fires becoming intense enough that they burn through and impact a green forest even if dead wood fuel has been removed.
“We’re past the emotion of the issue,” said Adams. “We’re dealing with tens of thousands of acres of forest. Money has been invested to get the land back into production. We have to get rid of the large amount of dead wood that is left out in the forest after fire. We, the federal and private land managers, must find ways to collaborate using principles that are tried and true. The whole focus has to be on fuel reduction and fuel mitigation.
“Science and the historic record are very clear,” he added. “Fires that have been documented and understood, like the Tillamook and Oxbow burns, show that leaving large amounts of snags and dead wood out on the forest floor is going to result in a reburn. We can’t afford to have that happen any more.”
Adams admitted that federal land managers at the district level have restraints and always the threat of lawsuits from environmental groups. He said he has seen some progress made at the district level by those land managers, but “we need to do better in eliminating fuel on public lands.”
“Roseburg Resources isn’t saying do it our way, but rather work together to help reduce the amount of standing dead fuel throughout the forest,” he said. “That will reduce the risk of a high intensity fire.
“Roseburg wants to be the advocate and champion for change, and not controversial about it,” Adams explained. “We want to try to find the right narrative that includes everybody and creates a green forest.”