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Geos Institute helps communities build resilience in the face of climate change

The Paradise fire: Could it happen to us?

By Dominick DellaSala and Dennis Odion
Originally published on December 23, 2018 in the Medford Mail Tribune

Smoke from wildfires is gone for now, but this year’s tragic California fires are a stark reminder of what could happen here. There are many take-aways that can help us prepare.

The Camp Fire of Paradise Valley, which took the lives of 88 people and destroyed thousands of structures, had nothing to do with whether the forest was thinned. It was a structure-to-structure fire. Startling images from GoogleEarth reveal surrounding trees untouched while homes burned to the ground. Blown by high winds, embers advanced miles ahead of the flame front, landing on unprepared homes and taking them out in a domino-like fashion.

In Southern California, tornado-force winds are known to spread fire rapidly through shrublands that at one time supported diverse wildlife habitat, but are now sprawling developments. Wildlands were gobbled up by developers during a mid-20th century climate-cool down that made fire suppression effective and created a false sense of security.

California now has unbridled traffic jams and global warming-related fires that destroy entire towns with no end in sight, as over 1 million new homes are planned in harm’s way by 2050. Insurance companies also have taken notice, anticipating increased wildfires related to global warming that will impact everybody’s bottom line.

So, what have we learned that can be applied in the Rogue Valley?

 First, we need to start planning our communities for fire safety. Hillside homes in fire-prone areas provide amazing views, but can be unsafe for homeowners and firefighters. Policy makers need to advance growth containment measures in such cases. New fire-risk mapping tools are available to help keep development out of harm’s way.

Second, in order to avoid the domino effect, every homeowner needs to take responsibility for retrofitting their home and clearing brush. If one homeowner ignores this, adjacent homes could be jeopardized. Interestingly, laser technologies on earth-orbiting satellites are now available to produce 3D maps of at-risk homes based on surrounding vegetation and roof type. Using this technology, Geos Institute mapped a shocking number of at-risk homes in the Ashland watershed. Policy makers could speed up risk-reduction measures by providing assistance to homeowners, especially low-income families.

Retired Forest Service fire specialist Jack Cohen says the fire problem is solvable but “it doesn’t have anything to do with controlling wildfire.” His seminal research reveals that even if the nearby forest is on fire, homes are likely to survive if the vegetation nearest the house is properly trimmed, attic vents screened, and homes built with fire-proof roofing. The goal is to stop the fire from igniting the home by working from the home outward, instead of from the wildlands inward. Many DIY “defensible space” guidelines are available online, and fire departments often have programs to help homeowners.

Third, what about thinning? Thinning small-diameter trees under certain conditions can reduce the intensity of a wildfire. But it is unrealistic to expect that to stop fires or smoke in extreme fire weather — high winds, hot temperatures, droughts — the new “abnormal” caused by global warming. This summer, smoke poured into our region from fires in British Columbia, trapped by weather inversions and the surrounding mountains. Stricter regulations that cut air pollution and assistance from health care providers on reducing health effects of wildfire smoke would help us breathe easier.

Thinning is also expensive to carry out, resulting in timber sales where the largest fire-resistant trees are often taken for profit. When large trees are cut down, this can open the forest understory to growth of flammable shrubs. Wide spacing between trees from excessive thinning can cause winds to blow through the forest rapidly, spreading fire into tree crowns. In some cases, thinned forests look more like a modified clearcut, a few scattered trees left with piles of logging slash that provide kindling for the next fire. This is damaging to soils, wildlife habitat and clean water.

What’s needed is more of a surgical strike aimed at dense growth of small trees that resulted from fire-unsafe forestry operations. The most fire-prone areas are tree plantations, salvage-logged clearcuts and, for safety purposes, evacuation corridors. The Rogue Basin Strategy could be made ecologically and fiscally responsible by zeroing in on these priorities, reducing the enormous taxpayer subsidies needed and removing the incentive to log large fire-resistant trees in proposed massive thinning operations. Policy makers also can prohibit clearcutting and post-fire logging that produce “fire-bomb” landscapes, as documented by Oregon researchers.

As planners reconvene for the next fire summit, it is crucial to pivot to public safety. This means having clearly designated escape routes, community fire shelters, and homeowners and builders taking responsibility for fire safety. After all, if our neighborhood isn’t fire safe, then we all are at risk of the dominos falling.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D, is chief scientist for the Geos Institute. Dennis Odion, Ph.D, is a vegetation ecologist with Southern Oregon University and University of California, Santa Barbara.


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