Containing severe wildfires in Oregon depends on the urgency and extent of controlled burns by the state and the FBI

Jesse Jackson stands proud, flute in hand, on a few hundred acres of forest near Roseburg that the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians fought to get back from the federal government in 2016, after more than 160 years of private and federal management and decades of heavy logging.

Jackson, educational programs manager for the tribe, expresses his gratitude to the land through his music and the indigenous Takelma language once widely spoken by the tribe. He describes huckleberries, huckleberries, gooseberries and tobacco that used to grow in the area and that he hopes will return. He then explains how he wants to set the forest on fire.

“Fire was very important in keeping all that stuff healthy,” he said.

He and tribal foresters want to convince federal agencies, which still own thousands of acres surrounding tribal lands, to burn those federal forests as well. A growing body of evidence from around the world confirms what the Cow Creek and other indigenous groups have been saying for years: starting low-severity fires on the forest floor – what’s called prescribed fire – is the most effective way to contribute to human health. forests and forests. to quell the risk of severe fires like those seen in Oregon and throughout the West in recent years.

But more than a century of intensive logging and development in Oregon, followed by replanting with densely packed Douglas firs and years of keeping fire at all costs, has laid the foundation for a present and future of fires that are bigger, hotter, and spreading. spread faster. .

For Jackson and the tribe, burning and fire have long been fundamental parts of forest regeneration that ensure healthy soil and reduced density and competition among trees. Fire was to be respected and utilized, not feared or suppressed. Controlled burning was practiced by its ancestors for tens of thousands of years to prevent serious fires and to ensure the return of keystone plants and species that provided fiber and food.

Jesse Jackson, education programs manager for the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians, explains how the tribe used fire and prescribed burns to keep forests healthy. (Photo by Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Fire experts from state and federal agencies are coming in for some controlled fires. They broadly agree that prescribed burning needs to happen across millions of acres across the country, and that it needs to happen quickly. There is a growing sense of urgency among those working at the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Forestry to burn more acreage, especially near cities and towns, to prevent catastrophic fires reach areas where people, houses and villages are located. communities could be lost. But with every fire comes smoke and the risk of flames spreading across property lines, making public acceptance of such a drastic firefighting strategy difficult.

And the Forest Service hasn’t given up trying to suppress all wildfires, meaning that forests that are overdue for a light fire won’t get it, and instead could build up fuels that fuel more serious and out-of-control fires.

Living with fire

North of Roseburg, in the town of Oakridge, four serious wildfires in the past decade have changed locals’ relationship with smoke and controlled burns.

“People are now welcoming prescribed burning to reduce hazardous fuels,” said Sarah Altemus-Pope, head of the South Willamette Forest Collaborative, a group that brings together nonprofits, state and federal forest agencies and community members to prepare and respond to forest fires in the former timber town. surrounded by the Willamette National Forest.

Molly Juillerat, district ranger for the US Forest Service in the Willamette National Forest (left) and Sarah Altemus-Pope, chief of the South Willamette Forest Collaborative (right) in front of a portion of the forest that burned during a wildfire in 2014. (Photo by Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The turning point for Altemus-Pope and the town of 3,100 came in 2022, when the Cedar Creek Fire came too close for comfort. It lasted three months, burned 127,000 hectares, and eventually led to a temporary evacuation of the entire city for several days. Residents spent nearly a month with air quality so poor it was considered one of the worst in the world at the time, she said.

Altemus-Pope, a former Montana firefighter and smokejumper who grew up in Oakridge, helped form partnerships with state and federal agencies for strategic thinning and burning around the city to make the landscape safer for firefighters to enter and provided financing for air conditioners and air fresheners. filter systems for low-income people and the elderly for smoky days. With funding from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the partnership developed a smoke safety plan to ensure residents would not be harmed during the controlled burn process.

“They realize that they may have limited exposure to smoke on their terms, or it may be a lot of uncontrollable smoke from severe fires,” she said.

In Bend, Oregon’s recreation capital, this level of acceptance is starting to take hold. The city sits right up against the Deschutes National Forest and is dense with ponderosa and lodgepole pines that historically would have experienced low-intensity fires every five to 10 years. The oppression of the past century has turned much of the area around the city into a tinderbox.

Controlled burns help. On a Thursday in mid-May, the U.S. Forest Service burned 350 acres of private land near the forest to reduce fire risk. It was timed so that it would last no more than a day and that the wind would carry most of the smoke away from the most densely populated parts of the city.

Jodie Barram, co-coordinator of Oregon Living With Fire, stands atop Pilot Butte in Bend to answer questions about a prescribed burn taking place near the city. (Photo by Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

But the scale of such fires must be accelerated to reduce fire risk near cities, and it can take up to eight years of planning before a prescribed burn occurs, said Jodie Barram, co-coordinator of Oregon Living With Fire, a multi- agency collaboration among local, state, and federal governments.

The Forest Service must conduct a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) assessment to ensure that critical habitats are not harmed and that numerous public and forest health needs are taken into account. It can take another one to three years to complete the mowing and mechanical thinning before a burn, often carried out by logging companies who are allowed to take some marketable timber along with the smaller trees and plants they remove.

There is also a lot of information that state and federal agencies must relay to area residents prior to a burn and there is a near constant need for more personnel and competition to help firefighters, and who are often pulled away to avoid non-burn injuries to combat. controlled fires. By the time everything is done, the forest service may have a few hours or a few days to put out a fire, given wind and weather conditions.

Last spring, the Forest Service was able to complete controlled burns on 4,400 acres of the 1.6 million-acre Deschutes National Forest. So far this year, about 800 hectares have burned.

When it comes to suppression, the Forest Service has not made much progress. Despite the abundance of research showing that forests must sometimes burn to maintain their health and diversity, the Forest Service continues to strive to keep 98% of wildfires under 25 acres or less.

Back in the Cow Creek forest area, such attitudes toward fire control reflect the shortcomings of modern attitudes toward fire, Jackson said. But it hasn’t stopped the tribe from trying to get the Forest Service on board for a controlled, large-scale, transboundary forest fire across hundreds of hectares in the area to keep their forests and surrounding forests healthy and fire-resistant. If approved, the tribe could potentially conduct one of the first and largest transboundary prescribed burns in Oregon in the coming years.

“We’ve been burning here since time immemorial,” Jackson said. “Anthropologists and archaeologists would say we’ve been burning here for 20,000 to 40,000 years. “I’m going to cross a line and say that the FBI has absolutely made a mistake over the last 200 years by not continuing the land practices that we’ve been doing here for – at least – 20,000 to 40,000 years,” Jackson said.

Reporting for this story was made possible by a grant from the nonprofit Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources.

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