Fire is becoming the major focus for this coming summer. Last year, millions of dollars in economic loss seemed to be the main concern to the valley, but we now know that smoke and its severe health implications is of much greater importance.
Forest fire smoke is extremely serious and it’s deadly. Just remember back to last summer when we endured seven continuous weeks of smoke. That has been compared to the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 50 or more days. Quite an experience for all the elderly, health challenged and children living in southwest Oregon. It’s a fact that many children and elderly ended up at their doctors or the ER.
What’s worse, though, is that new research is indicating that such smoke exposure is much more harmful than originally thought. In fact, one study estimates that those tiny particles “degrade health and contribute to thousands of deaths each year in the U.S. alone by causing respiratory, cardiovascular and other health problems.” Now, the New England Journal of Medicine has recently confirmed this. Those tiny particles of 2.5 microns and less get down in the furthest reaches of the lungs and even into the bloodstream. And all that carbon from the fires is going into the air — estimated to be from the Chetco Bar fire approximately 27 tons of carbon for every acre that burned. That equated to over 5 million tons of carbon released into the atmosphere. Oh, as well as those pesky other compounds and chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, methane, methanol, formaldehyde and a host of others. We all experienced that.
There are lots of reasons why we now have these fires; it isn’t just global warming causing this problem. We’ve got huge fuel loads developing every year in our own national forest. For instance, our Rogue River/Siskiyou National Forest grows around a billion board feet every year. That annual growth is enough wood to build about 85,000 houses. Further, 250 million board feet or more dies in this national forest every year, due to overcrowding, lack of nutrients and water. That alone is nearing the figure of a million trees.
To add to this problem of growing fuel loads, the annual sales target from our national forest is only a paltry 30 million board feet — less than 3 percent of annual growth. Massive amounts of fuel buildup due to little or no management, a situation that’s been continuing for almost 25 years. That’s the recipe for catastrophic fire and our resultant smoke.
What can be done to stop these horrible fires and deadly smoke? First, we must stop or limit the fires before they get out of control. One of the ways the Forest Service can help keep the fires smaller is to do what your Oregon Department of Forestry does after a lightning event. They put up a plane at first light in the morning, find the smoke, they fight the fire and put it out or, as we sayn “find ’em, fight ’em and put ’em out.” ODF is an amazing agency and their work is little recognized.
We need to change the whole philosophy of the Forest Service regarding fighting fires. Unfortunately its planning doesn’t include any consideration for smoke and its health implications. That needs to change. The Forest Service needs to adopt a “put it out now” attitude. During the summer we just can’t allow fires to grow unchecked. Assessing and monitoring is just asking for trouble.
Also, we need to start thinning and managing the forests now. We could start by clearing all the Forest Service roads to at least 25 yards on either side. This opens the road for service vehicles and allows access for fire control and also creates a wonderful fire break. Our environmental friends say that fire is an essential tool, and I would agree, but not one to be utilized during the height of the fire season. Fire is natural, they say, but catastrophic fire is not natural. The product of such fires is the horrible smoke we see more frequently every summer. Frankly, that can’t be tolerated. We can’t continue to put our children, elderly and health challenged adults at risk because of this.
Congress has to work with the agencies to put a stop to our “pack a day” summer smoke.
David Schott of Medford is an Oregon native, an ex-rancher and a timber industry spokesman.