Communities need to change the way they prepare for wildfires, especially massive ones that rip through thousands of acres, according to U.S. Forest Service research ecologist Paul Hessburg.
“We can actually learn to live in a completely different way with wildfires,” Hessburg told a crowd of more than 100 people in Umpqua Community College’s Jacoby Auditorium on Tuesday night.
He showed the audience slides of the ever-increasing numbers of burned acres in the last 50 years, the exponential increases in costs to suppress wildfires and costs associated with wildfire damage like rebuilding and loss of business revenue, which he said is more than 24 times the cost of suppression efforts. Later he said that cost could rise even higher, up to 50 times.
Hessburg pointed to historical photos of landscapes from the 1930s and pointed out their “patchy” forest design, with evidence of wildfires that helped maintain native plant and animal species.
Fire management started to change, he said, after the “Big Burn” in 1910 that scorched 3 million acres in the West and killed 87 people.
The Forest Service was tasked with suppressing wildfires after that, putting out 95 to 98 percent of them.
Couple that with livestock grazing, newly built roads and railroads, and the harvesting of large trees, and the country was headed for what Hessburg called an “epidemic of trees.”
Fire suppression became the prime shaper of the now-dense forest and the effects wouldn’t be understood for decades to come, Hessburg said.
The ecologist also talked about the increasing numbers of homeowners moving into the wildland urban interface, where fires are more likely and homes are tough to defend.
He said in rural areas, the cost of keeping a wildfire from burning a home down is often higher than the value of the home.
“That development is putting serious pressure on firefighters,” Hessburg said.
Throughout his talk, Hessburg said its homeowners, not firefighters, who are responsible for creating defensible space around their homes.
In the Pacific Northwest, the fire season is 40 to 80 days longer than it was 50 years ago, Hessburg said, adding that California now has a year-round fire season.
“These effects won’t just continue, but they’re going to continue to worsen,” Hessburg said.
Because of the way the landscape is shaped from megafires — fires that are more than 100,000 acres —the devastation can delay the return of trees from decades to centuries, Hessburg said, leaving some forests as perpetual meadows or shrub fields.
Hessburg mentioned a few ways to create “wildfire resistant landscapes,” specifically by using prescribed burns and mechanical thinning.
He said the barriers to prescribed burning are high costs and lack of social license — in other words, residents don’t want to deal with the smoke.
“Wildfire smoke gets a pass because it’s considered unavoidable, but prescribed burning is considered an avoidable nuisance because we strike a match,” Hessburg said.
He described wildfires as a social problem, one that all stakeholders need to work to fix.
“There’s no class of land allocation that’s immune to the fire problem,” Hessburg said. “Landowners should work together to solve the wildfire riddle.”
Tiller resident Todd Vaughn said what Hessburg was talking about during his presentation was exactly what they’re working on in the southern part of Douglas County.
The firefighter said they’ve been promoting roadside fuel breaks in Tiller, but they’re struggling with environmentalists who are worried about old growth trees.
“If we want to protect valuable resources, we need to thin,” Vaughn said.
Someone in the audience told Hessburg that he was “preaching to the choir” in Douglas County about active forest management, but wanted to know how to work with people who aren’t proponents of it.
“How do we work with people who don’t trust us? Was that the question?” Hessburg asked.
Another person in the audience said: “How do you say to people in Portland that we need to prescribe burn something?”
There’s power when people say they want to do something another way, Hessburg replied, adding that the community needs to rebuild connections that are broken.
Earlier in the presentation, Hessburg said there’s no future without lots of fire and smoke in it, but people need to ask themselves how they want their fire, prescribed or wild.