Reduce Wildfire Smoke Through Forest Restoration

 

Southwest Oregon residents and visitors alike suffered through another summer of prolonged and severe wildfire smoke, with many negative impacts to our health, community safety, quality of life, and the local economy. 

While there are no easy solutions, we can make things much better. Working together, agencies, landowners, and communities can begin to reduce the severity and duration of summer wildfires and the resulting smoke impacts through a targeted program of fuels reduction and restoring forest resilience.  We need to greatly increase the pace and scale of tree thinning and controlled burning operations that reduce the over-abundance of fuel – excess suppressed trees and underbrush – that, along with increasingly long, hot, and dry summers,  are the reason mega-fires are on the rise.

Ample evidence from scientific studies and recent experiences across the western US make it clear that tree thinning followed by controlled underburning significantly reduces fire severity and makes wildfires easier to put out. 

To be sure, controlled burning generates smoke, but emissions per acre are far lower than in a wildfire, and controlled burns can be conducted fall through spring on days when desired winds disperse smoke. Under current, overly cautious smoke management rules, however, the days when prescribed burns can be conducted are too few.  We are already working together to make needed changes in the rules to provide more flexibility and more burn days. 

An expanded program of forest restoration and fire hazard reduction tree thinning will generate a significant volume of by-product commercial timber and put people to back to work in the woods. This can be done while leaving the healthiest, most fire resistant trees in place.  But it still requires a large investment – $30 million or more annually.  Current Forest Service and BLM budgets for fuels reduction are far below this level. While expensive, the price for forest restoration pales in comparison to the costs of suppressing and recovering from wildfires and the unrelenting smoke. It also does not take into account millions of dollars of ecosystem services, like drinking water, that freely flow from our forests. 

The Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative (SOFRC) is a non-profit, community-based organization that promotes forest health and resiliency.  Working with numerous partner organizations and agencies, we developed the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy (RBS). The strategy calls for fuels reduction and thinning where needed most, and controlled burning in key locations, while protecting critical and fragile habitats. The strategy reduces wildfire risks to homes and habitat by 70%.

While it is imperative that homes are made safer through better construction materials and targeted fuels reduction, the Rogue Valley Fire Chief’s Association has endorsed the Rogue Basin Strategy as a critical piece of the 2017 Rogue Valley Integrated Fire Plan that addresses wildfire safety across Jackson and Josephine Counties. The Fire Chief’s Association recognizes that fires often move from areas outside communities into the wildland urban interface, necessitating mass mobilizations of Rogue Valley firefighters that are costly and dangerous. By creating healthy forests, jobs, and reducing landscape fire risk, we’re winning on all fronts by simultaneously integrating community protection and landscape resilience. 

We ask elected officials, citizens and business owners to join us in promoting the forest restoration strategy needed to make southwest Oregon a home with cleaner air and healthier forests. 

— By Max Bennett, Terry Fairbanks and Blair Moody, board members, Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative  

 
 
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