What Can We Learn from This Year’s Wildfire Season?
By Tova Tillinghast, Underwood Conservation District Manager
We are all breathing easier now as fire season draws to a close. Before we move on to all the concerns involved with wet, winter weather, let’s take a few minutes to reflect on the various dynamics that contributed to our biggest local wildfire this year: the Eagle Creek fire.
With the goal of learning from this year’s wildfire season, we should strive to understand the nature of wildfire in the Pacific Northwest and adapt our communities toward being “Firewise.” It may seem overwhelming, but there are real actions, outlined below, that you can take to help our communities come out stronger.
To start, let’s review the three ingredients needed for fire: fuel, air, and an ignition source. We have these three ingredients all over the Pacific Northwest. It’s really not too difficult to complete this simple recipe for fire. And it’s getting easier. For example, ignition sources come from a lot of things: lightning, cigarettes, brush burn piles, chains dragging behind trucks, campfires, and, yes, fireworks.
There have been several small Columbia Gorge fires this year, mostly human-caused. The Eagle Creek fire is the one that got out of hand. It had drier conditions, more wind, steep terrain, difficult access, all key factors that exacerbate wildfire conditions.
A really significant factor is that, being on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, the Eagle Creek fire had A LOT of fuel to build from. That’s the nature of our west side forests; they are very productive, and fuels easily accumulate. Fires on the west side are not very frequent, occurring every 150 to 300 years for a particular forest. Therefore, our west side communities are not as accustomed to seeing fire, but they are a historical part of the landscape. And when west side fires do burn, they can burn BIG. These are often called “stand-replacing” fires and are much more catastrophic and landscape-transforming than the fires we historically saw on the east side of the Cascades.
Besides being lower-intensity, fire frequency on the drier side of the Cascade Mountains can be as short as every 4-5 years. Here is a very insightful interview on this topic, as it relates to the Eagle Creek fire, with forest ecologist and University of Washington professor, Jerry Franklin: https://www.spreaker.com/user/oregonpublicbroadcasting/the-ecosystem-of-forests-and-fires.
While wildfire is a natural part of the Pacific Northwest landscape, there are indications that fire conditions are worsening due to a number of climate, drought and forest health factors. It’s a very complex system with multiple factors or dials that affect wildfire risk, and when all the dials are turned up, our chances of a wildfire in the region go up.
And don’t forget, with a growing population, more and more homes in the wildland-urban interface, and throngs of people visiting the wildlands around the gorge, sources of wildfire ignition have increased by an order of magnitude. If it hadn’t been the teenagers lighting fireworks, it could have easily been a cigarette thrown out the window along the interstate or the next vehicle that parked on the tall, dry grass. Every day during the wildfire season, ignitions are possible. Prevention, as Smokey Bear has instilled in us, is still important, but also really difficult to guarantee.
In western Klickitat County alone, there are at least 1,000 rural homes located in the wildland-urban interface! With wildfire a natural, inevitable part of our landscape, that’s a lot of homes at risk. What’s really important, and what was the main message of Dr. Paul Hessburg’s recent Mega-Fires presentations in the gorge, is that we accept the reality and responsibility we all hold in managing the threat of wildfire (https://www.eraofmegafires.com/).
If you build your home in the woods or other wildfire-prone areas, there are certain realities: The deer were there first and they will eat your roses and vegetables; wireless service might not be available; and, you’ve just put yourself in the path of a future wildfire. Wildfires happen. Whether on a 5-year or 200-year return interval, they will be back someday. Our responsibilities are to appreciate the risk we’ve assumed, lower our risk through Firewise practices (http://www.firewise.org/wildfire-preparedness/be-firewise/home-and-landscape/defensible-space.aspx), and build strong, resilient communities. Trim your trees back from the house, get an expert’s eye on the place, and support your local volunteer fire department. It’s about recognizing the very real risk and taking responsibility.
No one can deny that the Eagle Creek fire is a loss on many levels. Our hearts go out to all who were affected, all who were on evacuation notice, the property owners who suffered damages and loss, the business owners who are still feeling the effects of the fire. And we appreciate all the hard work of the firefighters and emergency management personnel who worked tirelessly to keep our communities as safe as possible.
It’s also important to acknowledge that wildfire has always been a part of this region, can actually benefit many flora and fauna, and lands do “recover” from wildfire (recover is a somewhat inaccurate term, since many ecosystems require fire to provide habitat and other functions). Especially on the moist west side, evergreen regrowth is only a season away. There are a lot of ways people can help accelerate that recovery and reduce the risks of soil instability in the meantime, so support your local land managers, whether public or private lands are affected by wildfire. Volunteer to plant trees, help rebuild your favorite trail, or donate to the fund set up to restore the Eagle Creek fire area: https://www.nationalforests.org/get-involved/eagle-creek-fire-restoration-fund.
However, we are misled if we consider wildfires our enemy, because in fact there are some real benefits of fire. As Dr. Paul Hessberg has described, fire can be an important tool in fuels reduction, and perhaps human communities should adopt that tool as an approach to avoid larger, accidental, and more catastrophic events. In places where it is not appropriate to utilize fire (such as close to our communities, or places with valuable infrastructure or commercial timber), forest thinnings can be a useful surrogate to reduce the likelihood of fires or reduce their effects when fires do occur.
As co-inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest, we need to recognize our risk of wildfires. They are very real, inevitable to some degree, and may worsen as our summers experience more frequent drought. Don’t just be afraid of wildfire, but learn to live with it wisely – Be Firewise.
The Firewise program offers practical tips to homeowners and landowners who want to reduce the threat of wildfire: http://www.firewise.org/wildfire-preparedness/firewise-toolkit.aspx and http://ucdwa.org/portfolio/firewise-program/. Underwood Conservation District (UCD) has had an active Firewise Program in Skamania and Klickitat Counties for a number of years, but due to tightening state and federal funding, our Firewise services have been cut to a barebones program. Stay tuned while we work on coordinating other funding sources, and call your legislators to support funding this important program.
If you live in a rural area and are concerned about wildfire, here are four things you can do: 1.) Visit www.firewise.org, and follow its advice on defensible space, 2.) Call UCD for a free assessment of your property’s wildfire risk (509-493-1936), 3.) Call your state and federal legislators and ask for Firewise funding for Conservation Districts, and 4.) Donate or volunteer with your local fire department and natural resource restoration and resiliency efforts.
It is our hope at UCD that we can support our gorge communities to become more prepared, less vulnerable, and more resilient to the many natural resource challenges we face. Wildfire, growing populations, forest management, and the rural quality of life we enjoy are big pieces of this puzzle, and we’re working to fit them together, with interested landowners and communities, through thoughtful, voluntary cooperation. Together, we can face these challenges with balance.