Rethinking wildfire

As evidence of climate change creeps into the Pacific Northwest, adaptive, science-based management is the name of the game for fire scientists at the Oregon State University College of Forestry.

“We want to move forward with adaptive management,” says professor of silviculture John Bailey. “We need to use the best scientific information that we’ve developed about how to treat forests. Then monitor these treatments and adapt them based on what we’ve learned.”

And what they have learned is that due to unexpected consequences of years of forest management, including aggressive fire suppression now costing billions of U.S. government dollars annually, Oregon forests need ecological restoration to survive inevitable future fires and drought associated with climate change.

Bailey’s lab is hard at work in central and eastern Oregon to spread the word and make science-based suggestions to forest managers.

Recent Ph.D. graduate James Johnston is working in the Blue Mountains of Oregon by collaborating with local, state and federal governments, forest managers and the public.

“We help people understand ecosystem drivers,” he says, “and what different things can be expected in different forests types; what type of future restoration treatments are important.”

Johntson focuses on ecological restoration, monitoring fuel reduction treatments and protecting and conserving old-growth trees.

Another project, on the Malheur National Forest, was successful because stakeholders were able to visit the forest together.

“When they go into the field and are able to count the rings right there and see the information presented in the field, it’s a really powerful tool,” Johnston says.

Research Assistant and alumus Andrew Merschel, whose work focuses on the Deschutes National Forest, agrees.

“It gives them confidence that they can move forward when they see it firsthand,” he says. “Most of the participants in the collaboration aren’t going to read journal articles, but they do have a desire to be out in the forest and learn about these things, and giving them hands-on experience really changes things.”

Merschel says forests like the Deschutes and Malheur are facing insect infestation and severe drought similar to Californian forests and woodland areas, so the research team is also working to understand the effects of long-term drought. “We know that more than 100 million trees in the southern Sierra Nevadas have died in the past few years,” Johntson says. “When it’s our turn in five to 10 years, perhaps, we need to have landscape-scale restoration done in order to prevent the death of trees.”

If we don’t, he says, fire will kill them anyway.

Because the situation is dire, the team is expanding their research to southern Oregon and their outreach statewide.

“We have the advantage of an engaged public who is excited to hear what we think about wildfire management,” Bailey says. “And because of the way that forests are burning now, we have to continue to scale up our research.”