Wildfire smoke, science and perspective

Having recently returned from my fourth wildland fire assignment this year, which is my 38th fire season, it has been pretty frustrating reading some of the guest opinions and letters to the editor in the Mail Tribune regarding wildland fires and the smoke in our valley. Many have tried to point to a single cause of these fires, while often referencing “science” to promote their personal agendas.

In my opinion, one of the worst examples was Luke Ruediger’s guest opinion in last Sunday’s MT that tried to blame the current fire and smoke situation locally on the Bureau of Land Management’s limited timber sale program. Another recent letter writer tried to blame the fires and smoke on industry greed and past “mismanagement,” often referencing “science” to support his rationale.

Let’s look at some facts regarding many of the fires that have contributed a substantial amount of the smoke our valley has experienced in recent years: the current Klondike Fire, like last year’s Chetco Bar Fire, started in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in very rugged, remote, and inaccessible terrain in which it wasn’t safe to deploy firefighters. Both started within the footprint of the 2002 Biscuit Fire, as did the 2013 Labrador Fire and the 2015 Collier Butte Fire. About one-half of the area burned in the Natchez Fire, still active as of this writing, is in the Siskiyou Wilderness on the Klamath National Forest. The Klamathon Fire started on private land near Hornbrook, CA, and burned primarily in oak and grass woodlands. The Timber Crater 6 Fire started and burned mostly within Crater Lake National Park. The Miles Fire has burned substantially within the footprint of the 2002 Timbered Rock Fire, which had no salvage harvesting on BLM lands. The Taylor Creek Fire, which eventually merged with Klondike, has burned primarily in lands established as a Late Successional Reserve in the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, as did the adjacent Big Windy Complex in 2013. It’s quite a stretch to blame these fires, and the smoke they put in our valley, on BLM timber sales, industry greed, and past mismanagement, but I’m sure that won’t stop Ruediger and his friends from continuing to try.

The BLM’s forest inventory data estimates the annual growth on Medford District BLM lands to be approximately 165 million board feet (MMBF). Over the last eight years, the volume of timber offered for sale has averaged 30 MMBF per year. The U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) data estimates the gross annual growth on National Forest System lands to be approximately 6.5 billion cubic feet, while the annual harvest level has been approximately 0.5 billion cubic feet. To assume that these forest ecosystems can continue to accumulate this amount of biomass during a time of warming climate without a substantial loss of forest resiliency is pure fantasy. The FIA data estimates that current mortality (dying trees) exceeds current harvest levels by approximately 2.5 billion cubic feet per year. An interagency report from last December estimates the number of dead trees in California’s forests now number 129 million. If a similar estimate were made for Oregon, I’m confident the number of dead trees would be well in to the millions also. This alarming mortality not only provides substantial fuel for fires and reduces fire suppression options, it also creates very dangerous conditions for firefighters. Snags (standing dead trees) are one of the leading causes of firefighter fatalities and serious injuries.

There are a number of valid factors contributing to our fire seasons becoming longer, more severe, and complex. These have been widely reported. Those that try to point the finger at one agency or one cause for the fires and smoke we have been experiencing aren’t helping to find solutions. Those that lived in the Rogue Valley in 1987 may remember that we suffered through heavy smoke for most of the month of September and early October that year after a massive dry lightning storm in late August started numerous wildfires in our area. I don’t remember anyone back then trying to blame it all on climate change, BLM timber sales, or industry greed.

John Prendergast of Medford is a professional forester and wildland firefighter. He is a fellow in the Society of American Foresters.

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