Two small prices for progress on fires

Two weeks ago, we laid out the steps we believe need to be taken now to begin restoring our forests to a more fire-resistant condition. That will take years of work, and some of that work won’t be popular with the public, as a public meeting last week on prescribed burning demonstrated.

Meanwhile, fires will continue to start, and the combination of drier forests and decades of fuel buildup means fighting them is more difficult that it was in the past. Some of the tools needed to contain those larger fires also will face opposition, but changes in fires require changes in tactics.

First, the prescribed burning debate:

State forestry and environmental officials are proposing changes in rules governing when controlled burning can take place and how much smoke it can produce. Along with thinning, burning slash and underbrush during the spring and fall is a key component of fuel reduction aimed at preventing catastrophic wildfires in the future. Existing rules say prescribed burns can be ignited when weather conditions will keep the smoke away from communities. State officials are proposing loosening the rules to allow some smoke for limited periods of time so the acreage burned each year can be increased.

Some residents attending Wednesday’s meeting objected to any additional smoke. And in a perfect world, it would be possible to reduce forest fuels without doing any burning or creating any smoke. But in a perfect world, wildfires would not erupt into conflagrations that burn for months at a time.

The proposed changes could allow one-hour periods of visible smoke in communities if officials issued warnings and provided indoor locations with filtered air. Given the increasing severity of unplanned fires, a zero-tolerance policy toward prescribed burns is a luxury the region can not longer afford.

One speaker questioned why fire crews are allowed to light back burns during firefighting operations because they create more smoke. Officials explained that back burns used to stop advancing wildfires during fire season are exempt from restrictions, for obvious reasons. It’s smoky already. If back burning can stop a fire from uncontrolled expansion, it’s worth creating more smoke now to prevent more smoky days later.

Prescribed burns are just one tool forest managers can use to prevent wildfires. Those tasked with fighting those fires need all the tools they can get, too. A story in today’s Mail Tribune explains how agency officials can waive rules under certain conditions to allow bulldozers to cut fire lines in wilderness areas to slow or stop the spread of an aggressive fire.

Mechanized equipment of any kind is normally banned in wilderness areas, but the rules allow for exceptions when fighting wildfires. Even so, wildland managers have largely avoided using dozers until recently. This year, bulldozers were used more on fires in Southern Oregon wilderness than in the past 16 years on Forest Service land in Oregon and Washington combined.

That won’t sit well with some wilderness advocates, but there is good reason for it. The fires now threatening wilderness areas in this region are larger and more threatening to lands outside wilderness areas if they cannot be stopped.

So far, it appears dozers were permitted only when they were specifically needed to cut fire lines quickly, and in some cases were approved but never deployed because fire conditions changed.

We don’t like smoky air from prescribed burns or bulldozers in wild places either, but both are reasonable departures from past practices that are necessary to deal with the changing nature of forests and the wildfires that threaten them.

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