How Forest Management Can Help Prevent Forest Fires

Here’s Why Climate Change, Population Density and Forestry Management Practices Can All Contribute to Catastrophic Forest Fires

In the past 30 years, forest fires have been devastating around the world and specifically here on the West Coast of the United States. Dry climates, changes in forestry management practices and increased population density have contributed to some scary situations.

There are many factors that have a strong influence on the likelihood of these fires happening, and how destructive they become.

The First Factor is Climate Change

An increase in global (and local) temperatures has affected many aspects of forest health including soil moisture, insect activity and the overall “drying out” of the forest environment. This drying out can cause increased “fire fuel” (trees, shrubs and roots), which increases the intensity and duration of forest fires.

In fact, the number of large fires in the PNW has doubled between 1984-2016. The changes in climate have contributed to warmer, drier conditions, increased droughts and longer fire seasons. 

While 80% of fires are started by people, these changes in climate have massively contributed to how long the fire burns, and how far it spreads.

In a warmer, drier climate mountain pine beetles have an easier time surviving, this leads to more trees being weakened and killed, literally adding fuel to the fire. Since the year 2000, there have been 14 fires in the PNW that have caused over $1 billion dollars in damages from home loss/property damage, damage/loss of infrastructure and firefighting costs.

The 2018 fire season broke records for being the deadliest and most destructive fire season on record in California (so far).

Forest fires cause damage to Federal and State budgets, public health and the environment around us. These fires are not only affecting North America but also the Amazon, Indonesia and Australia.

The Second Factor is Forestry Management Practices

The next factor contributing to an increase in catastrophic fires is how we are managing our forests. Many people and organizations including the United States Forest Service, various businesses, private landowners and Native American tribes such as the Karuk tribe are working with an increased sense of urgency to manage our forests better and get a handle on the fires and fire prevention. 

One way to to this is to manage forest fires through the use of intentional fire. Across North America, indigenous people have actively managed forest fires through the use of intentional fire for hundreds of years. These Native American tribes set low intensity fires in order to manage the build up of fire fuels and reduce the impact of larger fires.

Doing this throughout our various forests would help eliminate the massive, dangerous fires that have been plaguing the West Coast for the past 10+ years.

Dr. Frank Lake, who is a Karuk descendant and a U.S Forest Service research ecologist says “the Karuk tribe sees fire as medicine, and in doing so views tradition burning as a human service for the ecosystem. In places where fire is excluded, those places get too much fire, leading to negative consequences.” 

Here’s the thing though, the very practices that contribute to healthy forests and enhanced ecosystems have become far more difficult to perform due to legal and political constraints.  

Logging – Clear Cutting, Thinning and Replanting

The 1970’s-1980’s marked the peak of timber wars over clear cutting and the spotted owl. Since then, a lot of land that was opened to logging has moved to private logging practices.

Large parts of our forests have become massively overgrown and large sections of the forest are much too dense. These dense stands of dry trees and other forest fuels, in combination with climate change has led to large scale destruction.

In addition to thinning the larger, commercial sized trees, we also need to remove smaller trees and brush from the forest. The problem is that small trees and brush aren’t worth much at all in the timber industry. 

Sierra Pacific Industries has recognized this so they have upgraded their mills in order to handle and process “small diameter trees” which can be turned into viable products such as particle boards.

80 million acres of forest land is considered to be at risk for major fires, and is in desperate need of treatment. Fortunately many people are recognizing this and looking for solutions that will work for everyone.

Dan Tomascheski from Sierra Pacific Industries has said that their company now works with and talks to environmental groups that he couldn’t have fathomed working with 20 years ago. “The level of hostility and the fiery dialogue has greatly diminished. This is largely due to an understanding among all sides that the status quo in forest management isn’t working and that the wildfires are worsening in severity.” 

This is great news for all parties involved. Harvesting the right products, in a timely manner and managing what is left will allow our forests to be healthy for many generations to come.

You may be asking yourself, what can I do to play my part in eliminating such large scale forest fires. In your own home/property you can:

  1. Plant fire resistant plants
  2. Create plenty of space between your plants, trees and home to reduce the risk of flame jumping
  3. Remove dead/dry plant materials
  4. Always be aware of your camping fires/bonfires
  5. Clear out brushes and small trees and reduce fuels

Be mindful of your actions and do what you can in your area to protect our environment. Using our forest resources wisely will keep them healthy and removing trees to be used for other purposes can save homes, lives and businesses!

Healthy forest management has always been important and when you add in climate change, it becomes critical!

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