The New West

Charred rings

Growing up in the Inland Northwest in the 80’s and 90’s summers were great.  We knew fire was always possible, but it wasn’t a clear and present danger like it is now.  The last few years the summers as we knew them only last for about a month.  As soon as July rolls around it seems like a matter of time before the smoke rolls in.  The fires are so big now, that the smoke doesn’t even have to be from fires in the immediate area.

Summer in the New West

Chopper on the lookout
Helicopter spotter looking for new fires in the smokey skies of the New West summers.

Many people talk about how this is a result of climate change and past logging practices.  Although there may be shards of truth in those positions, I don’t believe it’s the real story.

 

Overgrown Forests = Fuel for Wildfires

Overgrown Forest
Overgrown forests from fire suppression and lack of management

The real story is the level of fuel in our forests.  This comes in the form of brush, small trees, and closed canopy forests.  To me, one of the saddest things I observe are the old trees that withstood centuries of fire only to be consumed by fires that they can no longer withstand.  It’s happening all the time.  Why? Because of the last 30 years of management practices.

We used to log our forests heavily weighted to economics, but all that changed on federal forests in the early 90’s.  Since then we have been leaving large swaths of forests to nature that have roads and have been managed in the past.  At the same time, we have been putting the fires out every summer. Each time we put the fires out the forests grow thick with many trees and shrubs that were designed to burn off every decade or so.  So now, when the fires start in the heat of the summer there’s very little hope of putting them out, let alone containing them.

We need Solutions

Natural looking forest management
Managed forest with prescribed fire, a forest that is fire resilient.

If we don’t reform our forest management policies quickly this problem will only get worse.  We need to restore our forests by thinning them out.  Then we need to reintroduce fire to maintain a more natural forest.  Doing this can support sustainable jobs in the forests, mills, and value-added facilities while providing the products we need for housing.  This can and should be done in harmony with the natural processes of the forest.

It’s not complicated.  We just need to act on our federal forests.

I for one would love to leave the west to the next generations where wildfire smoke is an exception in the summer, not the norm.

5 thoughts on “The New West”

  1. Hi Russ – I would say it is all three factors, the unharvested and unburned landscapes with dense forests are made more flammable by the changing climatic conditions that have made fire seasons longer and in relation to the past logging practices when we concentrated harvesting the largest oldest trees and forests we removed some of the most fire resistant trees and we didn’t do enough thinning of forests to leave the more resistant trees in a good condition. I suggest we accept all three factors have contributed to the current situation and not argue about which is more important than the other. We need to focus on what we have learned and what can be done now and the pace and scale of the work needed to make a difference.
    Thanks as always for stimulating the conversation. Check out the recent set of articles on Treesource.org for information on living with fire.

  2. When there were more loggers in the forest there were less fires get out of control; why; because loggers have extinguished way more fires than anyone that gets paid to do so. You don’t ever hear of this. The loggers are already near and have equipment if needed.

    1. Jim, this is true. Now, once the fire season starts the loggers get kicked out of the woods for the most part. I, with you, think this is a mistake. This whole plan needs to be revisited. One thing is for sure, we have more concentrated fuel loads than we’ve ever had. Loggers should be out there doing the work and dispatched to fires when they start.

  3. There is much truth in this, I have applied to purchase a small track of crown land twice and have been rejected because it is considered mule deer range. This forested area is so thick with dead pine that I literally watch fall to the ground one by one and now I see the large diameter spruce falling on top of the now useless pine trees. There is not a hope in creation of deer getting in there and we as farmers wanted to clean it all up for grazing our cattle. By rejecting our application, the forest is totally useless and does threaten our farm and the deer and all the animals and people and forests around it.

    1. Lori, thanks for your comment. Those of us in the States need to better understand issues facing people in Canada. I have good experience in BC and see areas of improvement. Thanks for sharing your story.

      Russ

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