Changing Our Views of Fire

Last fall, as a particularly vicious fire season came to close in the American West, John Bailey (Associate Professor, FERM) sat down to discuss his views on the intersection of wildfire, ecology, and policy. Read more below or check out the Spring 2016 issue of Focus on Forestry.

It’s late October now and fire season is drawing to a close. If you could describe Oregon’s 2015 fire season in three words, what would they be?

“On the trajectory.”

Interesting. What does that mean?

Collectively, we’ve had this sense that wildfire seasons are getting worse. When I say “worse,” that’s from the societal perspective —quantitatively, we can measure the severity of fire seasons in different ways, like when they start and when they end, or total the acreage burned. Fire seasons have been getting more severe for a number of years due to droughts, increasing accumulation of fuels and other factors. My sense is that the changing climate is increasing fire season length and severity. All of this to say that “on the trajectory” means 2015 fits into the pattern of more and more wildfire—you better get used to it. There’s only going to be more.

What kinds of things indicate that a fire season is likely to be severe?

The weather conditions, certainly. The way we measure it, the 99th percentile represents the best possible conditions for a fire to start and spread based on factors like temperature and wind speed. Twenty years ago, a 99th percentile day was more like an 95th percentile day is right now. We’re also having many more multi-day periods of hot weather, which dries the fuels out as well as contributes to the wind patterns.

Since the year 2000, Oregon has experienced three of the seven largest fires in the state’s history, including the Biscuit fire, which consumed over 500,000 acres. How has the State of Oregon coped with increasing fire during this period?

Most often, with fire suppression. The state calls in resources from other states, from the federal government, and even from other countries. They’re responsible for fires on their own state lands, but also on private lands, both small private and industrial private, and while the state has a limited budget to deal with fire, the federal government has an open checkbook and the policy latitude to not have to suppress every fire, every time. In reality, that’s still what they do in probably 99% of instances.

Is fire suppression a bad thing?

No, because we still don’t want fire everywhere all the time. Personally, though, I would like land managers to have a little more latitude to do prescribed burning, because a lot of what we suppress is happening under ideal prescribed burning conditions—the fuel moisture levels and weather conditions are right, and the fire would do some fuels reduction and ecological good. They’re the exact conditions that I, as a silviculturist, would prescribe in order to reduce fuel levels, recycle nutrients, and modify the plant community. Instead, we put those fires out. Sometimes, even when we do have a prescription ready and on the shelf, we’ll put out a fire and then, days or weeks later, go out and restart that same fire with drip torches [following the prescription]. Of course by then, we’ve already used the resources to suppress it, first. 

Isn’t failing to follow prescriptions we already have a missed opportunity?

It’s our current mindset, and like I said, we do this even when conditions are favorable to slow-spreading, surface fire. For me to go out and light a prescribed fire appropriately requires some expertise, associated training and certification, liability insurance, staff and budget, a burn plan with modeling outputs, and air quality clearance—that last one is very difficult to obtain these days. So we often cannot do it. Later on in the season, when we’re already stretched thin, we struggle to contain the bigger fires, and then those become more expensive and severe.

Are you saying that if we, as a state, were more thoughtful about how we dealt with fires at the start of the season, especially those that happen to fit within a given prescription, that we’d be making it easier for ourselves at the end of the year when there are fewer resources?

Yes, and I’m going to give you an example of what I’m talking about. Here’s a scenario: There’s a natural ignition from a lightning strike. We look at it and see that we already have a prescription to burn those 5,000 acres, so we examine the conditions, and we see that they’re conducive to our prescribed burn. We’re then able to go out, light a boundary, and get that prescription done, actively burning it over the next day. That kind of burn costs $50 per acre instead of $1,000 an acre when it later burns because we couldn’t stop it from doing so, and had to call in airplanes and set up camps to feed hundreds of firefighters.

Is it possible for us to start doing more prescribed burns?

Right now, suppression and prescription activities compete for the same resources—staff and time and money. We even raid the fire prevention and fuels treatment budgets to pay for suppression, but suppression is more expensive, and so over a period of years, this compounds the problem as our fuels surplus grows. Unfortunately, suppression is commonly understood as the “priority.”

Have we always suppressed fire in the West?

No—that is, if you looked at what was happening prior to about 150 years ago. Historically, the Willamette Valley was smoky every summer. It burned regularly, and the Bend/Sisters region even more so. Fire has been an important part, even a keystone process, in the evolution of our plant and animal systems in the forest. From an ecological perspective, it’s been a mistake for us to suppress as much as we have.

The thing is, as much as we suppress, it’s still going to burn. The evidence is already here: Right now we have an immense backlog of fuels, and even with more firefighting resources, even with more people on the ground, we haven’t been able to stop them from burning. We need to be approaching this with the idea that ignitions are inevitable and can do “good” under a wide range of conditions, and we really do have choices about what we do once they happen.


Archived video from the 2016 Starker Lecture Series — Burning Questions: People, Forests, and Fire is now available online and offers individuals, neighborhoods, and communities useful information and strategies for living in a changing environment.