Now that the smoke has cleared after the wildfires, the full extent of the damage is becoming apparent. Estimates are that over 400,000 acres burned just in Clackamas and Marion Counties, including almost 100,000 acres of private land. The fires are not completely out, and the data is still coming in. Most of the acres burned were in larger federal or industrial private ownerships deeper in the woods. But the strong winds fanned the flames well into the zone of private farm/forest and rural-residential lands.
Focusing on family forests, the fires affected hundreds of owners and likely over 20,000 acres in Clackamas and Marion County. OSU Extension Forestry, Oregon Department of Forestry, and other partners are collaborating to meet the need for assistance with post-fire assessment and recovery in the forest, including assessment of damaged trees and planning for salvage harvest and reforestation.
It seems clear that extraordinary measures will be needed to provide local capacity to help landowners get the work done. This includes foresters, loggers, tree planters and nurseries to supply the need for tree seedlings. The demand for these services and supplies over the next few years will be far greater than usual, so it may take some time to ramp up to meet the needs. In wild forests, recovery after fire, including natural regeneration of trees, may take 10 to 15 years. While we usually strive for immediate site preparation and planting, it may take 2-3 years to deal with all the acres burned, which will still provide a relatively rapid recovery.
I am extremely grateful for the dedicated efforts of fire-fighters and first-responders – both official and un-official. Continuing support for them and their capacity to help us all in the future is a big part of our ongoing effort to prepare communities for wildfire. As I visit landowners in various neighborhoods affected by the fires, just about everyone has a story of how they or some of their neighbors used their equipment, knowledge, and skills to successfully fight the fires. As in most disasters, a big lesson from these fires is that you can’t assume that help from others will come when you need it - be prepared, use your judgement and take action when needed.
Woodland owners in general are independent, pro-active, and prepared. But when it comes to fire in western Oregon, we just don’t expect it to happen very often, so we may still be caught off-guard when it does. As a forester and woodland owner myself, I think it is important to continue seeking guidance and training in order to be prepared to take appropriate and effective action.
As part of our effort to provide post-fire assistance, we are offering a series for webinars for After the Fire. As with most of our online sessions, these will be recorded if you miss the live version. Information on upcoming After the Fire Webinars and resources from presenters are available online.
Preparing for more fire
Reducing the potential severity of fire in the relatively wet forests of western Oregon is challenging due to the rapid regrowth of vegetation. In the dry forests of southwest Oregon or east of the Cascades, removal of accumulated fuels (pine needles, branches, shrubs, small trees, etc.) can effectively change the forest back to a “low-severity” fire type. Such that the level of fire damage will be low the next time it burns. In the moist forests of western Oregon, a pattern of infrequent but severe “stand replacement” fire is often the natural condition.
Maintaining low fuel hazards across large areas of productive moist forest may not be feasible to the extent needed to resist those rare intense fires driven by extreme fire weather. But we can manage forests to change fire behavior during less extreme conditions and at the interface between wildlands and developed areas. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of losing your home and woodland to damaging and deadly wildfire.
- Focus on strategic fuels reduction at the interface between dense forests and communities or infrastructure.
- Promote building with materials and designs that resist ignition from embers – in both new construction and retrofitting.
- Accomplish home landscape management and fuels reduction in the Home Ignition Zone across neighborhoods.
- Ensure ingress and egress for all and access for fire fighters.
- Reduce human caused ignitions due to carelessness, powerlines, and other sources.
- Prepare communities for evacuation.
We need to increase our investment and commitment to implement the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. The “National Strategy” is a strategic push to work collaboratively among all stakeholders and across all landscapes, using best science, to make meaningful progress towards the three goals:
- Resilient Landscapes
- Fire Adapted Communities
- Safe and Effective Wildfire Response
To pursue this in Oregon, our Extension Fire Program is moving forward with six new faculty coming on board this year.The Extension Fire Program website is your gateway to resources on all aspects of preparing for fire and recovering from fire.