Smoke fix: Years of work, millions of dollars

It’s become monotonous. With only a few brief interludes of favorable winds to clear the smoke, Southern Oregonians go about their daily business in sealed cars and closed-up houses and workplaces, strapping breathing masks to their faces if they must be outside for any length of time.

It’s a normal reaction to these conditions to look for a fix. Surely something can be done to limit wildfires and the smoke they produce.

Something can and should be done, but it won’t be quick and it won’t be cheap.

First, it’s important to understand how we got to this point.

Longtime residents remember summers without weeks of choking smoke, a thriving timber industry and reservoirs brimming with water from plentiful winter snowpacks. None of that is coming back, with the possible exception of less-smoky skies — eventually.

While the timber industry was booming, clearcuts were replanted with new trees, which grew into plantations that now help to fuel the fires that plague our region. Decades of active fire suppression prevented the natural, low-intensity fires that burn along the ground, clearing the forest floor while leaving big trees to continue growing. Underbrush — what foresters call “ladder fuels” — now chokes the forests, turning what could have been beneficial fires into the “crown fires” that destroy hundreds of thousands of acres.

At the same time, the climate was gradually changing, with higher temperatures, less rain and snowfall and longer fire seasons. Eight of the 10 hottest summers in Medford have occurred since the Biscuit fire of 2002.

So what’s to be done?

The most promising plan was developed by a coalition of federal agencies, conservationists, business and community leaders, landowners and foresters. The Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative produced a detailed plan a year ago, called the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy. It calls for mechanical thinning of overgrown forests, coupled with prescribed burning in the fall and spring when weather conditions will keep smoke out of communities as much as possible.

The plan proposes thinning and fuels reduction on 25 percent of the Rogue Basin, or 1.1 million acres, over a period of 20 to 30 years. The group estimates that could reduce wildfire risk as much as 70 percent, while putting 1,700 people to work, directly and indirectly.

Some of those would be logging jobs, but by no means all of them. Much of the landscape that needs to be treated contains little or no commercially valuable timber.

Those areas that do contain merchantable timber could produce enough to approach the annual targets of both the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and the Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management, all without clearcutting or encroaching on riparian zones. The proceeds could help defray some, but not all, of the cost of thinning and fuels reduction.

The group estimates the work would require up to $30 million in federal appropriations every year for 20 years. That’s a lot of money, but this summer’s firefighting costs exceeded $135 million two weeks ago, with no end in sight. And that doesn’t include the secondary costs in lost tourism revenue and destroyed property.

Thinning costs average $500 to $600 an acre, with prescribed burning adding more cost. But fighting the Garner fire this month cost $4,900 an acre.

Congress needs to realize that it’s less expensive in the long run to reduce fire risk by restoring forests than to fight the catastrophic fires that result from overgrown, unhealthy landscapes.

That won’t mean an immediate end to the smoke we’re now experiencing. And there always will be some smoke from prescribed burns in spring and fall, and from the so-called “good fires” that remove underbrush and keep the risk of catastrophic fire low. But doing nothing will only guarantee more years of unbreathable air and hundreds of millions in firefighting costs, not to mention lost lives, property and timber.

Let’s get started.

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