The American West, still recovering from the megafires of 2020, finds itself battling another long, dry and inescapable fire season. Facing the effects of climate change—including higher temperature and extended drought—and the encroachment of urban areas into forest lands, the West is learning, through experience, the lessons of destructive and prolonged fire seasons.
UO experts are doing their part by examining the history of how we got here, and researching ways that individuals, governments, and agencies can mitigate fire disasters and be better prepared for the reality—and necessity—of living with wildfires.
Primed to Burn
The circumstances that led to these longer and more destructive fire seasons are complex and multi-faceted. In addition to climate change, forest management policies have been a key factor, said UO historian Steve Beda, who specializes in environmental history.
The truth is, natural fire can help forests stay healthy, Beda explains, as it clears away underbrush, dead trees and thick canopy – which allows new growth to thrive.
Indigenous people used fire as a tool to manage landscapes, he said, because it helps the ecosystem stay healthy, promotes the growth of edible plants and supports game populations. White settlers also used fire to manage the landscape.
Beginning around 1900, there was a growing concern that these fires would burn the vast forests of the West and lead to a timber shortage. The Forest Service began a move to end burning and develop the capacity to suppress fire.
Beda points to the “Big Burn” in 1910 as a pivotal event in shaping the Forest Service’s approach. Big wildfires swept through Idaho, Montana and Washington, burning three million acres and claiming 87 lives. “The US Forest Service, founded just five years earlier, responded by training and maintaining firefighting crews,” Beda said. “For much of the 20th century, suppressing fires became its goal.”
The Forest Service and state forestry agencies adopted aggressive fire suppression policies focused on extinguishing all wildfires as quickly as possible. Over time, decades of that suppression increased the small trees and brush in the types of forests susceptible to frequent fire.
Human-caused climate change has contributed to the fiery conditions. Annual average precipitation has declined, and annual average temperatures have increased, resulting in hotter and drier summers like this one. While there aren’t more fires today than there were historically, fires today are more likely to be severe.
UO geographer Dan Gavin said that fires are highly episodic and there have always been periods of more or less fire over the last 14,000 years, including very large fires in Oregon. He points out that today’s larger and more destructive fires are happening faster than expected.
“Climate change is loading the dice,” Gavin said – and noted that there are more sources of ignition to fuel fires, like the downed powerline that started last year’s Holiday Farm Fire in the Willamette Valley.
With multiple factors contributing to the growth of fire seasons, it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how to live with fire – but UO experts are drawing from many different disciplines to offer ideas.
The Future of Living with Fire
UO seismologist Doug Toomey adapted the technology he used with collaborators across the west to launch the earthquake warning system ShakeAlert, for a wildfire detection system known as ALERTWildfire.
ALERTWildfire is an interactive fire camera network that can help detect wildfires and provide real-time visuals and situational awareness to fire response teams and the public.
By relaying vital information like where the fire is located and how it’s growing, ALERTWildfire can help crews make quick and informed decisions about what kind of response would be most effective. The system is also designed to provide multi-jurisdictional access so the many agencies, stakeholders and communities involved in fires can see the data and visuals.
“All individuals with the responsibility of leading a fire response or public safety ought to be able to have ‘eyes on’ so that they can scale-up or scale-down with confidence,” Toomey said. “Alert Wildfire is like a modern lookout tower that anyone with a login and smart phone can access. It allows crews to make a dynamic response using information like the growth pattern, the local topography and the dryness of the surrounding landscape.”
The ALERTWildfire network is growing with more than 800 cameras situated around the West – and it is currently being used by crews fighting the Middle Fork Complex fires outside Oakridge, less than 35 miles from Eugene.
Cass Moseley, the UO’s senior vice president for research and innovation and a research professor who specializes in natural resource policy and wildfire management, said wildfire, and how it can be managed, varies considerably depending on the particular ecosystem. In addition, management decisions need to vary based on a fire’s proximity to people, property, and resources such as power lines and drinking water supplies.
In all fire prone areas, it is important that homeowners create defensible space around their homes, Moseley said, as well as take steps to reduce the risk that the house catches fire, such as moving their woodpiles away from their homes.
Because wildfires will continue to be a fixture of life in the West, Moseley points to the need to learn to live with fire by making smoke management plans, reducing risk to homes from threat of fires, and mapping out evacuation routes.
In areas with frequent fire, it can be helpful to conduct forest thinning and brush clearing in the hopes that it can change fire behavior and reduce the severity of fire. Reintroduction of fire through prescribed burning can also restore forest ecosystem and reduce risk of severe fire.
“Getting good fire back on the ground is important in the right place at the right time,” said Moseley. “Doing so requires a lot of agreement building and a lot of skilled staff across multiple state and federal agencies.”
Skilled personnel are just one critical need for more effective management.
“Some of the greatest challenges of prescribed fire are insufficient capacity and resources,” said Heidi Huber-Stearns, the director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program. She’s conducted research into the challenges and opportunities of fire management and published case studies about what’s working and what’s not. One of the things that’s working is collaboration between agencies and groups, which Moseley’s research also finds critical.
“There is an opportunity for different groups to work together, to collectively plan and map out risks – and to share resources for burning,” Huber-Stearns said. She pointed to a partnership in Ashland where the city, the US Forest Service and nongovernmental organizations are pooling resources and collaborating on plans to make the local forests more resilient and to reduce the risk of severe wildfire in the area.
A 2015 prescribed burn conducted at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon.
Photo by USFWS – Pacific Region.
Another promising collaboration that UO researchers point to is with Indigenous communities, who have centuries of experience using fire for good. UO sociologist Kari Norgaard has done extensive work with the Karuk Tribe in northwestern California and southern Oregon and believes agencies should look to Indigenous people for leadership roles in fire management.
“Indigenous peoples have long set low-intensity fires to manage resources and reduce the buildup of fuels – flammable trees, grasses and brush – that cause larger, hotter and more dangerous fires, like the ones that have burned across the West in recent years,” Norgaard said.
The Karuk people see fire as medicine for the land, she said. Places where fire has been suppressed are sick – and when catastrophic fires charge through those fire-starved regions, it’s like an overdose for the land. The Karuk people, like many other tribes, believe in revitalizing the practice of fire science to help manage forests, and Norgaard believes that collaborating with Indigenous communities to do this is the most effective way to live with fire.
“There is an opportunity to restore western forests and protect the public from dangerous wildfires,” Norgaard said, “and tribes are uniquely positioned to lead the way.”