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Guest Opinion: Who’s really to blame for 2014 wildfires?

By Dominick DellaSala, Chad Hanson and Dennis Odion in the Medford Mail Tribune
As scientists, we are alarmed by the hyperbole and misinformation contained in timber industry representative Jeremy Wuerfel’s Oct. 5 opinion piece about this year’s fire season. Fires burning across the West are in no way out of the ordinary. Even the severe ones are a natural part of mixed-conifer forests burning today the way they did historically in most places.

Naturally, most people have a visceral response to a recently burned forest, but forests need periodic fire to replenish soil nutrients and renew plant growth. Decades of scientific studies have revealed nature’s remarkable restorative powers that begin soon after a burn. There’s nothing “romantic” about this — it’s an ecological fact told in countless studies and nature documentaries. High-intensity fire patches with dead trees (“snags”) contain uniquely bio-diverse plant and animal communities that rival the more celebrated old-growth forests. But unlogged burned forests are especially rare because of post-fire logging, a commodity-driven activity.

In 2002, politicians and the timber industry claimed the nearly half-million acre Biscuit Fire, which burned in mixed intensities, was a “moonscape.” They also claimed that the forest would never come back without logging and replanting. A year later, scientists were on the ground counting far more conifer seedlings than what the Forest Service would have artificially planted. However, tractors and log skidding crushed most conifer seedlings in logged areas. To make matters worse, areas salvage logged in the 1987 Silver Fire then re-burned in the Biscuit Fire at high intensity fueled by logging slash.

Last year, the Rim Fire west of Yosemite burned within a perimeter of over 250,000 acres in mixed intensities. Large snag patches were scattered amidst areas where most trees survived. Today, even the most severely burned patches have prolific conifer seedlings and abundant woodpeckers and songbirds despite claims of catastrophe. Unfortunately, the Forest Service proposed massive salvage logging over formal objections penned by hundreds of leading scientists.

Scientific studies also have documented that fires tend to burn hotter in managed landscapes than unmanaged ones, refuting one of Wuerfel’s arguments. A Google image of the Douglas Complex fire of 2013, near Glendale, reveals that fires scorched heavily logged lands where little wildlife habitat remained, but burned in lower intensities in the late-successional reserves where abundant habitat was created for fire-dependent species.

In this year’s Oregon Gulch fire, east of the Greensprings, most of the 32,000-acre fire was hottest in logged lands previously owned by Weyerhaeuser, as confirmed by BLM Klamath Falls Resource Area scoping documents. Local residents will also attest to how the fire blew up when it hit the numerous firebomb slash-piles stacked well over 10 feet high in industrially logged areas. These observations are corroborated by satellite images dating back to the 1980s. Overall, they show that fires in our region burned mostly in mixed intensities as nature intended, but blew up in industrial tree farms.

Mr. Wuerfel’s comments about global warming and carbon dioxide are equally off-base. The published, peer-reviewed literature shows that the most protected forests in Oregon, including areas with active mixed-intensity fires, store the most atmospheric carbon. In fact, even in high-intensity fire patches, only about 2 percent of the carbon in the trees is released, typically, and the burned patches tend to absorb the highest levels of carbon if left unlogged, as forests naturally regenerate. It is logged areas, not burned forests, which are a major source of global warming pollution.

Wildfires will continue to be part of our bioregion through the next millennium and we need to fight them when they are a threat to homes. But instead of blaming forest protections for fires, we should be working together, as many communities and conservation groups already are, in reducing fuels where people live and encouraging industry to stop creating fire-prone plantations and to responsibly treat slash piles.

Finally, we agree with Mr. Wuerfel’s suggestion that readers “… take a hard look at what is actually happening to your public forests. Go out and look at the effects of these mega-fires for yourself. See what your ‘protected’ forests look like after these fires are out.” Luckily, there are many award-winning videos so anyone can see firsthand just how resilient, and rich in wildlife, post-fire habitat is.

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Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., is chief scientist at Geos Institute and courtesy faculty at Oregon State University, and is now editing a global book on the ecosystem benefits of fire. Chad Hanson, Ph.D., is a forest and fire ecologist with the John Muir Project. Dennis Odion, Ph.D., is a plant ecologist specializing in fire who has research positions at Southern Oregon University and UC Santa Barbara.


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