When the deadly Camp Fire inferno burned through communities in Northern California in 2018, Barry Dusty and his family lost their home and had to shelter at his office with six dogs, four parrots, and a cat for nine months.
He is one of the lucky ones—he escaped alive—yet nearly two years later, he is still struggling with finances and finding a home.
His story is not an anomaly. Recent historic fires, such as last month’s Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires, have ravaged towns and left many in similar positions to Dusty.
The fire seasons have been growing longer and more intense and are expected continue on this trajectory. In the dry and forested West Coast, residents will have to implement measures to live harmoniously with the fires, otherwise, the devastating aftermath of uncontainable wildfire will continue.
“We thought [the fires] were anomalous, but they are fitting into a pattern that is driving us towards a crisis,” said Dr. John Bailey, OSU professor of silviculture and fire management. “The fire community fully expects that the fire seasons will continue to get longer, and that means for a longer period in the summer, the fuels will be extremely dry.”
Fire Season has Grown
Just 10 years ago, fire season, a time when the weather is more favorable to fire ignition, lasted four months. Now it lasts close to six months, from May through October, and it’s not getting any shorter, according to Fire Chief Doug Grafe of the Oregon Department of Forestry.
“We’ve certainly been challenged since 2013 with an increasing trend towards more challenging and complex fire conditions on the landscape,” Grafe said. “It certainly continues to be heading that way as you look at what’s happening in California and the West.”
The increased length of the fire season can be attributed to two main factors: a growing amount of fuel on the landscape and a warming climate.
“The fuel load on most acres in Oregon is higher than it has ever been really,” Bailey said. “Not only is there more fuel, but the acres of those fuels are more connected than they’ve ever been.”
Since the mid-20th century, scientists observed that the earth has proceeded to grow warmer at an unprecedented rate, and there is a 95% probability that the warming is caused by human behavior, according to NASA. The warmer temperatures, combined with the forested lands of the Pacific Northwest, provide ripe conditions for burning.
When Forest Fires were Good Things
The cause of the increased fuel seen in forests today can trace all the way back to American settlement, according to Bailey. Though fire can be a terrifying force, it is essential to the rejuvenation of land in the West, and the Native American tribes inhabiting the West Coast knew this.
“Fire is beneficial for many of our ecosystems in the West, but getting the right tempo and kind of fire is important,” said Meg Krawchuk, associate professor at the OSU College of Forestry.
Indigenous groups conducted frequent low-intensity fires across the land to manage the plant communities and fuel levels, which created the forest’s structures.
“There’s been a whole group of us researching just how prevalent fire was in the Oregon landscape and the entire West landscape,” Bailey said, “and the traditional ecological knowledge of our Native American ancestors and how they molded the landscape primarily with fire. And how effective that was.”
But when white settlers moved west, few adopted this practice. The mindset around fires changed from using them as a tool to manage the land to suppressing them to limit damage to civilizations. Then the U.S. Forest Service was founded in 1905, furthering the mission of fire suppression. With no more planned fires, the fuels on the land began growing.
“American settlement has resulted in a number of things that interrupted the regular flow of fire across the landscape and, particularly in the last half century, have really allowed those fuels to accumulate,” Bailey said.
The Controlled Burn
Even though the climate is warming, there are ways to lessen the devastation of wildfires by returning to controlled burning, according to Bailey. If the fires occurred during a windless and humid week, they could burn through a selected piece of land without spreading at an unmanageable rate.
“This is what we need to continue working away at, adaptively changing from business as usual to better meet this challenge,” Krawchuk said. “Thinking about where fire is beneficial and low risk to high value resources and allowing fire to burn there, providing ecological benefit, providing the potential self-regulating effects of fire, and cost savings in fire suppression.”
In addition to controlled burns, cities will have to reconsider how they plan housing and zoning, and even the materials with which buildings are constructed. Adapting to these changes will take time and new policies.
“When the conditions are right, wildfires can come into our urban areas and leave a path of tragedy and loss. We need to be proactive moving forward and make sure we are adapting our recovery plans to tailor them toward fire,” Krawchuk said. “When we think about the idea of resilience, people often think of it as bouncing back. What we need now is adaptive resilience, and actually figuring out what it means to bounce forward.”
Even types of logging could contribute to the management of fire fuels, according to Bailey. All of these options would require an innovative approach to forest management and an understanding of the behavior and benefits of fire. But unless some of these changes take place, and take place soon, people can expect to see the trend of detrimental wildfires continue.
“I wish I could tell you that this is the worst of it and that it’s going to get better. I wish I could tell my son that when he asks that question, but the fuels by and large are still accumulating, every day, every week, every month,” Bailey said. “Those trees, that shrubbery–everything. Even in these post fire areas, all fuels are going to start growing again. So, we need to manage those fuels better.”
By Jessica Goddard