The Coming Firestorms
September 9, 2021 | View PDF
Note: Zybach wrote this a year ago, following the Labor Day fires in Oregon.
The most deadly, destructive, and widespread catastrophic wildfires in Oregon’s history erupted on Labor Day this year, driven by strong east winds. But unless we change how our national and state forests are managed, these events will be just another chapter in this age of predictable, increasing, and ever-greater firestorms.
I spent my career studying forest fires and forest health. For example, my doctoral dissertation from the OSU College of Forestry was titled, The Great Fires: Indian burning and catastrophic forest fire patterns of the Oregon Coast Range, 1491-1951.
In a 2018 interview, just before the California Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, I said: “You take away logging, grazing, and maintenance, and you get firebombs.” Then someone took my quote, pasted it on a forest fire photo, and the resulting meme quickly went viral on Facebook.
This September Facebook began flagging this post as “partly false” because my quote, and related interview, doesn’t mention climate change. Evidently, Facebook’s executives feel their new-found forestry judgment is better than my lifetime of scientific research and hands-on forestry experience.
The broad arc of Oregon’s fire history explains why this year’s catastrophic wildfires have converted our public forests into unprecedented firebombs. What were once green trees filled with water, have now become massive stands of pitchy, air-dried firewood.
For thousands of years, ancestral Oregon Indian families kept ridgeline and riparian areas open for travel, hunting, fishing, and harvesting purposes. They cleared ground fuels by firewood gathering and seasonal fires. This created systematic firebreaks in a landscape characterized by southern balds, huckleberry fields, camas meadows, oak woodlands, and islands of mostly even-aged conifers.
Following the 1910 firestorms, the US Forest Service established a nationwide system of fire lookouts and pack trails backed up by rapid response fire suppression. This system became remarkably effective over time. From 1952 until 1987, only one forest fire in all of western Oregon was greater than 10,000 acres: the 1966 43,000-acre Oxbow Fire in Lane County.
But since 1987, Oregon has had more than 30 such fires, with several larger than 100,000 acres. The 2020 Labor Day Fires alone covered more than one million acres, destroyed over 4,000 homes, caused 40,000 emergency evacuations, killed millions of wild animals, and blanketed the state with a thick, acrid smoke that obscured the sun for days.
What changed to cause this dramatic increase in catastrophic wildfire frequency and severity?
The problems began in the 1960s, with apparently well-intentioned national efforts to create large untouchable wilderness areas and cleaner air and water on our public lands.
The single biggest turning point in how public forests are managed happened on December 22, 1969: about 50 lawyers in Washington, DC created the Environmental Law Institute, and a short distance away Congress passed the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
Next, the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) provided the growing environmental law industry with a way to be paid by the government for challenging nearly every attempt to log or otherwise actively manage public forests.
By the 1980s, the artificial creation of Habitat Conservation Plans (“HCPs”) and the listing of spotted owls as an Endangered Species laid the groundwork for today’s fires.
The 1994 Clinton Plan for Northwest Forests might have been the final nail in the coffin. The subsequent never-ending environmental lawsuits, new Wilderness and HCP creations, access road decommissionings, and fruitless public planning exercises have created tens of millions of acres of massive fuel build-ups and “let it burn” policies that have decimated our forests.
The predicted result has been ever-larger western Oregon forest fires. More than 90% of these large- and catastrophic-scale fires have taken place in federal forestlands, which only represent 50% of Oregon’s forested areas.
Even if — like Facebook executives — you believe these fires were somehow sparked by climate change, you should be very concerned with what will happen next.
Lessons from the 1933-1951 “Six-Year Jinx” Tillamook Fires and the 1987-2018 Kalmiopsis Wilderness Fires are clear: unless removed, the dead trees resulting from these fires will fuel even greater and more severe future fires.
Forests of dead trees are far more flammable, dangerous, and unsightly than those with living trees. Dead trees dry out, and dead forests become firebombs that almost certainly will burn again and again, unless something is done.
The 2020 fire-killed trees should be mapped, sold, and harvested ASAP. Prices for Douglas fir logs are at a record high, and there is a great need for good-paying rural jobs. The initial focus should be on the dead trees east of Portland, Salem, Eugene, Ashland and the rural towns directly affected by this year’s fires.
Salvage logging must be done soon to be economical: dead trees deteriorate rapidly.
The 1962 Columbus Day windstorm downed 9 billion board feet on a Friday, and by the following Monday salvage logging on public lands had already started. But the 2002 Biscuit Fire burned a roughly equivalent amount of timber, and it took years to develop salvage logging plans and deal with court challenges.
All the delays meant salvage logging actually lost the US Forest Service money; very little needed logging was ever completed, and the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire resulted, burned hotter, and spread wider.
This year’s fires killed at least twice as much timber as the 2002 Biscuit Fire, and it greatly damaged and affected urban areas near major cities. So it will be interesting to see if we can learn from Oregon’s fire history and take the prompt, decisive actions needed to avoid the clearly predictable coming firestorms.
Following a 20-year career as a successful reforestation contractor, Dr. Zybach returned to school and obtained a Ph.D. in the study of precontact Indian burning patterns and historical catastrophic wildfires of the Oregon Coast Range. His book is available here. He is the Program Manager of nonprofit educational website Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project, Inc. since its founding in 1996: and has researched and written about wildfire mitigation and reforestation in the Pacific Northwest for more than 40 years.