About 30 members of the crew stood in the morning still of the Oregon forest as Katie Sauerbrey laid out the plans for the day. Some carried shovels or pickaxes. Others leaned against trucks and peered at maps of the area. All listened intently as she outlined the risks of their operation.
There were 1,000-foot cliffs that fell to the ocean. There were unmarked barbed wire fences. There was a steep drainage full of thorny blackberry bushes.
There would be fire. And they would be the ones to light it.
“With the primary carrier being tall grasses, this thing could move quickly,” she told the group. “We could get some tall flame lengths. Be prepared. Keep your head on a swivel.”
After the briefing, Sauerbrey, a preserve manager with The Nature Conservancy, led the crew – made up of folks from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others – on the mile-long hike out to the 30-acre meadow they planned to burn at Cascade Head, a preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy a few miles north of Lincoln City.
Controlled burns like the one overseen by Sauerbrey are an important part of forest management, one of the tools officials use to try and make a dent in the massive buildup of fuels that has amassed over decades of aggressive wildfire suppression. But controlled burns face obstacles, namely air quality regulations that can limit their effects.
After the last two fire seasons, where portions of the state were inundated with smoke for months on end, officials have begun to ask: might it be wise to endure a small amount of limited smoke in the offseason to mitigate the smoky hellscape that’s become the norm over the last few years?
A historical precedent, an unprecedented history
Tribes in the Pacific Northwest have used fire as a tool to shape the landscape for thousands of years. The touch of flame kept huckleberry and camas fields abundant. In areas where tribes hunted deer and elk, fire created a mat of forage plants on the forest floor, a favorite food for the ungulates. Burned areas recycle nutrients more efficiently and help to control the spread of invasive species.
“Done in a controlled way, as a management tool, as opposed to out of control, fire improves the resources the creator has given us,” said Cheryl Kennedy, chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “This knowledge was instilled in us and we look forward to the day when these practices are as widely used as they should be.”
The tribes used rotating cycles of fires to keep land fresh. Hazelnut stands saw fire at least every 10 years, trees and bushes used for basket weaving were burned every three years or so. The frequency of the burns not only helped the plants grow. It also helped keep the landscape free of dry fuels.
The result would come to be known as the “10 a.m. rule,” which stated that fires should be contained by 10 a.m. the day following their initial report.
Forests like we’ve never seen
In Oregon, where more than half the state is public land, forests today look like nothing nature intended, more dense than at any point in recorded history.
“In some places there are 10 to 100 times more trees per acre,” said Mark Stern, director of forest conservation with The Nature Conservancy.
The change in forests has changed the way fire behaves in them, said John Bailey, a forestry professor at Oregon State University.
“Fire behavior is based on three things: landscape, weather and fuel,” he said. “The topography hasn’t changed, but there are many acres out there that have more fuel than they’ve ever had.”
What followed was decades of aggressive fire suppression leaving forests without the naturally occurring burns that cleared out dry fuels and underbrush. Left unburnt, many forests across the western United States now look as they never have before, brimming with fuel that has accumulated, in some spots, for more than 100 years.
“Fire needs to touch the land once every 10 years,” said David Harrelson, a cultural resources manager with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “Without it, you leave room for catastrophic fires.”
The way fire is managed across the west changed drastically in the summer of 1910. By August, some 3,000 fires were burning across the west including blazes in the Wallowas, on the eastern flank of Mount Hood, in the Umpqua National Forest and on Huckleberry Mountain, just west of Crater Lake.
Along with increased temperatures from climate change, the buildup of fuels has played a role in dramatic fire seasons across the west during the last few years, which have been both costly and harmful to public health.
In 2018, wildfires from Washington to California to British Columbia blew smoke into the Portland area, causing unhealthy air quality for days on end. In southern Oregon, unhealthy air lasted for months.
In total, the state spent more fighting wildfires in 2018, nearly $515 million, than in any other year.
No magic bullet
A problem of this scale, which spans millions of acres across numerous state lines, has no easy solution.
“We need it all. More thinning. More mechanical treatments. More prescribed burning,” Bailey said. “But it needs to be strategic. You want to look for areas that haven’t burned in a long time so, if a wildfire does start there, maybe it will be 5,000 or 10,000 acres instead of 100,000.”
On average, roughly 165,000 acres a year have been treated with controlled burns in Oregon over the last decade. Three times that area – about 470,000 acres a year over the past 10 years – have burned in wildfires. In 2018, wildfires scorched more than 830,000 acres in the state.
Still, there are examples of success. The Millie Fire, which burned nearly 25,000 acres in the Three Sisters Wilderness in 2017, could have been much worse had the area near the town of Sisters not been treated with controlled burns before the wildfire.
In 2017, the Eagle Creek fire scorched nearly 50,000 of Oregon’s most beloved acres in the Columbia River Gorge and rained ash and smoke on the state’s densest population center. That same year, the Chetco Bar fire in southwest Oregon burned for five months and scorched nearly 200,000 acres.
“Firefighters had a path to approach,” Sterns said. “(Controlled burns) not only make fires less likely to grow, they make them safer to fight.”
With fire comes smoke, though, and that’s been the big stumbling block in making wider use of controlled burns. The Oregon Smoke Management Plan, adopted in 1972 to conform with the federal Clean Air Act, essentially prohibits any controlled burn that results in visible smoke in a populated area. Every five years, the plan comes up for review and that process began early in 2017 with a series of five meetings across the state.
Among the stakeholders at those meetings was Carrie Nyssen, senior advocacy director for the American Lung Association, who sometimes felt like the odd person out at the meetings as one of the few who resisted the push to relax regulations.
“It’s a difficult issue for the Lung Association. It’s hard for us to support any policy that puts more smoke in the air,” she said. “But we know there is no option where there’s no smoke and we want to make sure folks in affected communities know when it’s coming, what there options are and where they can go.”
Joining Nyssen on the panels were public health officials, forest collaboratives, environmentalists, timber operators, elected officials and a tribal representative, all of whom aired their differences and forwarded a set of recommendations to state officials.
Among the recommendations: a relaxation of the threshold for smoke intrusions, but also an increase in communication to affected communities so arrangements could be made by those most vulnerable.
The benefits would be multifold, according to Bailey.
“If we proactively and consciously go after this buildup of fuels, it will reduce the amount of fire, the amount of money we spend on fire and the number of fatalities we have,” he said. “All of that equals less smoke in the air.”
State officials are reviewing comments on the proposed changes, which could be approved and put in place as early as January 2019.
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