Forest Fieldnotes

Jun 30, 2016

 As I sit writing this in early June, the thermometer has already shot up into triple digits for the first time this year, and I heard thunder in the distance yesterday evening. With a now-familiar sense of mild dread, I realized fire season is upon us once again. 

This is the reality we live with each summer, those of us who inhabit northern California and southern Oregon. The temperature goes up, the forests dry out and each thunderstorm has us casting anxious glances toward the mountains, scanning for the telltale column of smoke that tells us wildfire has come to visit again.

Ultimately, as clever and industrious and resourceful as humans are, we live within the natural world and its timeless processes.

Here in the Rogue Valley, we’ve been pretty lucky in recent years. We’ve tasted the smoke and seen the blood-red late afternoon sun through the haze of distant fires to the north and south, but we’ve avoided the most damaging fires. Still, nestled as we are in a crease between the Siskiyous and the Cascades, we’re aware of how people in other communities, similarly situated, have had to run for their lives and hope their homes were still there when they returned.

This is all to say that we take wildfire pretty personally in this region. So at the end of last year’s fire season I set out to explore what’s going on, what’s causing it and what — if anything — can be done to ease that seasonal dread. The cover story in this issue of the Jefferson Journal is an adaptation of that work. And I learned a lot.

The dominant takeaway is that the wildfire conundrum is a complex knot of interwoven causes; overgrown forests knocked out of their natural ecological balance by a century of fire suppression, increasing human sprawl into previously wild areas, and the looming reality of climate change bringing drought and extreme weather. Each of these factors feeds off the others, making it hard to address one without at least taking the others into account.

That said, not everyone sees this triple threat in the same light. For example, it’s widely accepted that excluding fire from the woods has kept fire from performing its natural role of thinning and cleaning up flammable fuels. This has led to forests that can burn with uncharacteristic severity. Some timber interests say that calls for more extensive logging, to remove “excess fuels.” Others recommend a more selective treatment approach that takes out small trees and low-hanging branches, using carefully-controlled burns to restore ecological balance. Still others say we need to focus our efforts on reducing fire threat to homes, and leave the back country to resume its normal fire cycles on its own. Folks with each of these perspectives tend to think those who disagree are misinformed.

Likewise, it makes sense that allowing development to expand into fire-prone areas increases the need to spend limited resources to protect those lives and properties newly put in harm’s way. But the desire to foster economic growth — as well as a deeply-rooted reluctance among rural officeholders to restrict their constituents’ property rights — complicates the options to address the threat.

For me, as a journalist and as a resident of this region, I’m impressed with both the daunting nature of the problem and with some of the innovative efforts being made to deal with it.

And with that comes a generous dose of humility. We humans still tend to think that if we come up with just the right combination of policy, technology and money, we can solve any problem and make things work out to our liking.

But as the old Earth First! bumper sticker pointed out, “Nature Bats Last.” Ultimately, as clever and industrious and resourceful as humans are, we live within the natural world and its timeless processes. Those processes predate us by eons, and our technology notwithstanding, we are subject to their dictates.

Perhaps our greatest success will come when we learn to measure our contentment by our ability to cooperate with those forces, rather than by our attempts to conquer them.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for more than 20 years. After a stint as JPR’s News Director from 2002 to 2005, Liam covered the environment in Seattle, then reported on European issues from France. He returned to JPR in 2013, turning his talents to covering the stories that are important to the people of this very special region.