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Climate change calls for new look at fire, experts say

By Caitlin Fowlkes of the Tidings

Dominick A. DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, says more scientists agree that forest thinning in the backcountry is futile.

At a presentation he gave Friday during a symposium on fire, DellaSala said that according to a 2017 study, less than 1% of areas that were thinned had a forest fire.

He said thinning doesn’t work well in extreme fire weather, it can increase wind speed and vegetation, it doesn’t last longer than 10 to 15 years before it must be redone, and it can make land more prone to fire.

DellaSala, speaking at the 100th annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said there’s just no way to tell where lightening is going to strike.

“A lot of it is in backcountry, in steep areas that you can’t get to it anyway,” DellaSala said. “In many areas you don’t have access, and there’s no way you can treat enough of the landscape to make enough of a difference.”

Joseph Vaile, executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, who also presented at the symposium, said a new tactic is being promoted by a couple of Colorado research centers called PODs, or Potential Operational Delineation. This strategy is used to map potential control lines to help compartmentalize fire and let it burn somewhat naturally in a safer manner as opposed to immediately extinguishing it. These plans are made prior to a fire start, in collaboration with multiple stakeholders.

“If fire hits our area, there’s a pre-identified area for suppression,” Vaile said.

Both Vaile and DellaSala agreed that controlled burning in a strategic way can be helpful to minimize fire risk near residential areas.

“We’ve built in this fire-prone landscape, and this is a place that has burned pretty frequently,” Vaile said. “Jackson and Josephine counties have some of the most wildland-urban interface, where we’ve built up very close to the fire-prone areas.”

DellaSala said more than 80% of wildfires across the U.S. are caused by people.

The more roads you have in an area, the more likely you are to have human-caused ignition, he said.

DellaSala said that creating a defensible space around a home provides a 95% to 100% chance of survival, but the whole neighborhood must participate. An ember can travel two miles and start a new ignition, according to fire officials.

“If you or your neighbor don’t have a defensible space, it creates a domino effect,” DellaSala said.

During his presentation, DellaSala showed images from the Paradise fire and pointed out that the trees, although charred, were still standing, but all the structures had burned to the ground.

DellaSala noted that charred forests are crucial to the natural landscape. Native-Americans used fire to cultivate certain crops, and it wasn’t until settlers began extinguishing fires and developing residential areas within the forests that the severity of wildfires increased.

Add in rising temperatures due to climate change and decreased water supply, and it’s a perfect recipe for longer and more severe wildfires.

DellaSala’s book, “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix,” explains that leaving burned forest lands alone to revive is essential for a healthy ecosystem.

“It is nature’s phoenix,” DellaSala. “These forests literally rise out of the ashes.”

Vaile said that a high-severity fire kills the vegetation, while a low-severity fire does little to no harm, and a mixed-severity fire falls between those extremes. The Rogue Valley is a mixed-severity fire region.

This is ideal for a lot of animals and vegetation, DellaSala said.

For example, a new seedling may sprout in the packed soil of the roots of the burned tree from which it fell. Certain pine cones require extreme temperatures to seed, and certain animals such as the spotted owl will nest in the burned areas if they have easy access to green areas to catch food.

DellaSala said we could see 10% of species in this region go extinct this century, and 1 million species go extinct in the next couple of decades.

One negative impact on forest health is logging, especially logging that happens after a fire, because the wood is devalued, but the blackened trees should stay in the forests because “nature is recalibrating,” DellaSala said.

He said logging is a main reason for spotted owl nest abandonment. It also causes more intense burns. He said forest practices need to be reformed, and the government needs to stop politicizing fire.

“The governor said they’re going to put out every fire start, but that is infeasible,” DellaSala said.

Vaile stressed the importance of protecting habitat and refuge. He said this region — and the Klamath-Siskiyou Wilderness Area in particular — has a large number of species not found anywhere else because they were able to survive there through the last ice age.

Because this area has already survived and adapted to climate change in the past, it might be able to again, but protecting that refuge for these endemic species is important. DellaSala called the Klamath-Siskiyou region the “Galapagos of North America.”

Although both experts agreed that climate change is worsening wildfires, DellaSala said data show that we’re currently in a fire deficit.

He said there’s a perception that we have a megafire problem (a fire that burns 100,000 or more acres) and that the forests won’t bounce back, but he said the forests are coming back and are healthier for it.

“The megafire thing is not as big an issue as some people make it out to be,” DellaSala said. “But we must prepare for the chaos of unprecedented climate change.”

“More scientists are saying we need to get to coexistence, and how we get to coexistence is to treat the home as a defensible space and protect the wildlands,” DellaSala said.

Simply put, “Coexisting with fire is hard,” Vaile said.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Originally published June 24th 2019


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