Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Oregon is on fire

As I write this, hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon are on fire and some of them are minimally contained after months of effort.  The one that saddens me beyond words is the fire at Eagle Creek in the Columbia Gorge.  This fire is near Multinomah Falls and many other falls along the beautiful Columbia River Historic Highway. Two teenage boys were tossing fireworks over a cliff along a trail.  Nearly 5,000 acres have been consumed so far, a number of communities have been evacuated and Oregon's only east/west interstate has been closed.  The fire is within a few feet of the historic Multinomah Falls Lodge and right next to the falls.  I go there to hike often.  It is a very special place to me, a place that calls me back again and again.  These were huge old trees, trees like the one that gave me my slab table and it will take a century for the forest to come back fully.  I will never see it as it was again.  Our house is about fifty miles away and we woke up to ash everywhere, the remnants of what used to be.

What can be done?  Here, nothing other than replanting.  There will always be a few teenage boys who do things like this.  I think the Forest Service can be faulted for not closing the area but this would have been hugely controversial.  It's hindsight.  Many of the other fires were caused by lightning strikes.

There is a bigger and more fundamental issue and the solution is beyond dispute.  Forest fire is a healthy and natural part of forest life here.  Experts study old growth forests and they see that there were several natural, low intensity forest fires every decade.  It can literally be seen in the trees and we can see the positive impact thereafter.  These fires remove brush and the "ladder fuels" that allow the fire to climb to the tops of the biggest trees and they thin the forest.  A century of putting out forest fires and not removing the overstocked trees and brush mechanically has created a situation in which the fires are so hot and intense that everything is destroyed.  You go to ponderosa pine forests in eastern Oregon where the brush has been removed and then "controlled burns" have been conducted at optimum times in late spring and just marvel at the health of the forest.  Contrary to what many environmentalists believe, this is what a natural forest looks like, not the overgrown tangle you see in many pictures.  I have seen old pictures of untouched forests in Oregon and they don't look anything like the ones we admire today.

I owned 40 acres of second-growth douglas-fir in southern Oregon that was tangled and choked.  The trees were way overstocked so they couldn't grow well and were susceptible to disease.  A forest fire would have moved through at unbelievable speed.  I did a lot myself and hired fire crews on standby to do the rest.  You just wouldn't believe what happened.  The remaining trees were "released" and they starting growing vigorously.  Forest health improved dramatically.

The people at the Forest Service understand this and they do as much of it as their budget allows, but it is a pittance compared to what is necessary.  We are willing to pay thousands of workers to fight forest fires but not to clear brush and remove ladder fuels in our national forests so fires can be beneficial.  This is what our Congress has done.  Tragic.  I so wish we would take care of our national forests.

Update:  Read this to be utterly disgusted.  Two fires have merged and the total is now 31,000 acres.


  1. I read the news everyday (I don't watch it) and I haven't read one word about forest fires in Oregon. I guess oil refineries shutting down causing gas prices to rise makes for better reading. I hope they contain the fires soon.

  2. Andy, I live in Silverdale, a small community across the water from Seattle. (Yes, we have woodworkers up here.) I woke up to ash floating in the air this morning too. Some is from the fires in Eastern Washington and some may be flowing up here from your Oregon fires. A week ago we got heavy smoke in the air from the British Columbia fires. This fire season seems to be the worst I can recall.

  3. Hear hear. I'm a fed retiree and it grieves my heart to see what's happening to our forests. The agency has been choked by budget cuts and unfilled vacancies to the point of maybe no return. This has been going on steadily since the 80's. The land agency budget is a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the national spending. Compared to DOD it's literally coffee money. So radical budget cuts here mean nothing except misery for people when the fires and floods take out our national treasures. The agency people know what to do but without $$$ no dice. The job is huge. I guess the endgame is to starve it to death, blame the hapless personnel, or the "environmentalists", declare failure, and sell our forests at a discount to the oligarchs. Can't believe that's what we as a people want.

    1. I am afraid you are right. As a private forest landowner I got to know the Forest Service folks because they were responsible for most of the land around me. It is exactly as you say: they knew what to do and wanted to do it. Nevertheless, people blamed them.

      I do think there will be a push to privatize the National Forests. Sad.

  4. Andy,

    Last night MsBubba and I decided to just stay here in Ft. Bragg instead of continuing on up the coast to Oregon. It's just one year for us but will be decades for Oregon to recover.

    Take care,


  5. Just came across this article and thought you'd find it interesting.