Research ecologist and forester, Paul Hessburg, PHD, presented “The Era of Megafires, Monday, May 1, 2017, to kick off May as Wildfire Awareness Month, a multi-state proclamation by governors in several western states, including Idaho. Hessburg was born in Minnesota, but came to eastern Washington and grew to love the region and decided to raise his family there. He currently lives in Wenatchee, where a devastating wildfire erupted on a 100 degree day in June 2015. The city and the people were not prepared, and the fire destroyed many homes as well as forest and grasslands in just two days, before rain put it out.
Hessburg’s presentation included his lecture interspersed with videos and analysis of the history of forest fires in the west, the years of fire suppression and the current threat of mega fires (defined as fires that destroy 100,000 plus acres), using the Wenatchee mega fire as an example that he witnessed and studied.
The history of fire in the west begins with the reality that the western landscape is a fire environment. Plants and animals have evolved with fire and depend upon it in many cases. Ponderosa pine has thick bark that withstands low level fire easily, balsam root with its showy yellow flowers has a deep tap root that is safe during fires and blooms again. Woodpeckers use burnt snags. Even fish benefit from post-fire landslides that drop rock and gravel into the streams for their habitat.
Native peoples for thousands of years used fire as a tool to produce landscapes beneficial to the growth of berries, acorns, and animal life that they used for food. Natural and human fire use created forests that were more open with areas of meadows and thicker forests on north slopes than on south facing areas. Fire occurred in all areas, but in dry forests frequent, low intensity fires occurred. In moist forests with denser tree stands, low intensity mixed with severe fires swept through. In cold forests on mountains there were infrequent fires, but much more destructive leaving “island” or meadows interspersed with forested areas. The trees that survived the flames provided seeds for new growth. Forests therefore had a patchwork structure that was sustainable.
When white settlers arrived, they first burned the forests as they saw Native people do. But after Indians were defeated and moved to reservations, burning declined. And establishing farms and towns led to landscapes where burning was not desirable. Forest changed as fires, except those by lightening, declined.
In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt established the forest reserves amounting to 193,000 acres, due to the fear that wood was nearing a critical period of depletion. He put Gifford Pinchot in charge, and the management of them was for the greatest good for the greatest number. The timber industry began cutting, leaving debris and slash. Five years later the Big Burn of 1910 occurred in Idaho during a hot, dry, windy season. Smoke from the conflagration reached New England. But it was partly caused by human action following logging which left behind highly inflammable debris. Following the historic Big Burn disaster, Congress began to fully fund and staff the Forest Service. The new mission was called the 10 a.m. rule—meaning every fire should be put out by 10 a.m. the next day.
Thus, the decline of forests soon began at this time as old growth was cut out and thin, young, same aged trees in denser stands became the norm in much of the west. These forests were not fire and climate resilient. Photos from the 1930s show the healthier forests and comparison photos made by John Marshall in the 2000s showed the much denser, same aged forests that have been created by fire suppression.
Today, thousands of homes are being built in the wildland/urban interface and are vulnerable to fire. Climate change will bring hotter, drier conditions and longer fire seasons. Today, fire seasons are 40-80 days longer than they were fifty years ago. Additionally, more megafires such as the one that occurred in Fort Mc Murray, Alberta in 2016, that raged over 1.5 million acres, burned 2400 homes, and caused 88,000 people to flee, will happen. Of course, the costs of fires are huge and increasing every year.
Hessburg says that we must learn to live with fire since it is a natural phenomenon in the western environment. People must take responsibility for where they live and prepare for future inevitable fire events. Governments must use science to deal with this reality by performing controlled burns, managing wildfires so that they burn areas that are dense and need thinning when possible, and other techniques for protecting people, communities and forests. He suggested visiting Firewise.org to learn more. Several local agencies and organizations had displays and information about fire hazards, fire-tolerant landscaping, and prevention measures people can take now. Preparation and accurate knowledge about western fire can save lives and forests.
Written by Suzanne Marshall