A single tree explodes in flames during the Blanket Creek blaze, which burned east of Prospect in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. (InciWeb)

Overgrown forests called 'ticking time bombs'

Pointing to a century of forest management policies that’s left a “blanket of trees,” and hotter, drier climes, a U.S. Forest Service researcher says destructive summer wildfires have no sign of stopping.

To a crowd of area firefighters and two dozen concerned locals, landscape ecologist Paul Hessburg of Wenatchee, Washington, said wildfires that burn more than 100,000 acres are a “reality for the forseeable future.” And, he said, the situation will get worse long before it gets better.

At his multimedia “Era of Megafires” presentation at the Smullin Center in Medford, Hessberg cited a mix of climate change and social issues as underlying reasons he expects the average number of acres burned will double or triple by the middle of the 21st century.

Calling climate change a reality, yet advocating for partnerships with the timber industry, Hessburg straddled political norms with his proposed solutions, which have been presented at 2017 TED talks. For example, he called popular discomfort around the idea of harvesting timber or grazing on public lands a “social problem,” and advocated for “new social license” to rebuild mill infrastructure.

“In some ways we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater,” Hessburg said.

Exponentially more controlled burns during moist conditions were another solution Hessburg highlighted, which he said native Americans used more frequently to manage forests than we currently do. Presently about seven times more acres are burned by wildfires than by proscribed burning.

“We need to flip that,” Hessburg said. “As communities we’re afraid to use managed wildfire because we’re afraid one or two will get away — and one or two will get away.”

Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest supervisor Merv George, Jr., a member of the Hoopa tribe, thanked Hessburg for highlighting the historical importance of managed fire, something he said he’s long advocated.

George said “it would be really nice” to hear during public comment periods from local people who want to see more active forest management. Typically, he said, comments come from people paid to oppose any change to the forest.

The ideas confounded climate change advocates such as Alan Journet, a Southern Oregon Climate Action Now co-facillitator, who thanked Hessburg for calling the wildfire problem “human induced” rather than a “natural disaster,” but asked how Hessburg would address climate change deniers.

“The elephant in that room is Republicans who reject climate change,” Journet said.

Hessburg sidestepped politics and advocated for less “catastrophe speak” surrounding wildfires.

“You all hire and fire lawmakers,” Hessburg said. “It’s up to you.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

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