Oregon ablaze: Let’s take steps to minimize future fires

The Eagle Creek wildfire apparently started with a single act of youthful irresponsibility. But sparks from that devastatingly negligent deed landed in a cherished place of shared responsibility, and the rest of us must ask ourselves whether we’ve done everything we can to protect that particular treasure.

The question extends beyond the Columbia River Gorge to include all of Oregon’s forest lands. The Eagle Creek blaze may be the most noticeable for Portland-area residents, but it was not the first — or largest — in the state.

At one point last week, more than half a million forested acres in Oregon were burning uncontained — an area nearly twice the size of Multnomah County.

Wildfires are nothing new for the Northwest, but climate change has lengthened the fire season while conditions fueling out-of-control conflagrations have not been addressed.

The protracted summertime drought brings greater insect infestation, which in turn weakens the forest’s resistance to fire. Adding to those risk factors is a recent history of aggressive fire suppression and a lack of smart forest management, particularly on federal lands.

Taken in combination, these trends have led to excessive buildup of fuels, which means a mere spark — from a campfire, a chainsaw, a lightning strike or, yes, a firecracker — can set disastrous events in motion. With so much material to consume, these fires burn intensely and spread swiftly.

It is difficult to separate the natural order of things from human causes. Forest fires have occurred for millennia, and they served a purpose — clearing out the underbrush that’s so problematic now.

However, the percentage of human-caused wildfires is rising and human intervention — from climate change to fuel buildup — has exacerbated dangerous conditions that threaten not only trees, but also the livability of many communities.

No one chooses to reside in Oregon because they love smoky skies and hazardous pollutants. So, we all have a stake in minimizing forest fires, while also understanding that some level of fire activity is unavoidable.

Much of what is burning in Oregon is on federal land, which is why on Sept. 8, thanks in part to Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, Congress amended its disaster relief package to add some $300 million for fire suppression.

But Congress also must be proactive.

In the early 1990s, fire-fighting costs represented less than a fifth of the U.S. Forest Service budget. Now, those efforts burn up more than half the budget. But Congress habitually underfunds that line item, forcing the forest service to “borrow” millions of dollars from its other accounts — including funds set aside for trail development, species protection, timber sales and, ironically, money for preventing fires and restoring forests.

Most of the money gets repaid later, through emergency funding measures, but the constant raiding of prevention and restoration funds — and delays in paying it back — are harming efforts to limit fires.

So, aside from helping the victims of these fires, what can Oregonians do? Here are a few ideas.

– Back the bipartisan effort led by Wyden and Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo to stop the Forest Service’s budgetary “fire borrowing.” Wyden and Crapo and have long advocated a ban on this dangerous budget trick, instead seeking other means to pay for unbudgeted suppression needs. We hope Congress now feels the heat and moves to end this long-abusive practice.

– Allow more active management of federal forest lands. Thinning and controlled burns during the non-fire season, particularly in central and eastern Oregon, will reduce fuel loads and also have a beneficial economic effect for rural communities.

– Build on the success of 27 forest “collaboratives” in the state. These groups bring together environmental, industry and community interests to find agreement about how to manage federal forest lands. Some credit the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project for thinning that kept the Milli Fire from spreading to Sisters.

– Support efforts by state and local agencies to minimize fires’ impact by giving greater consideration to the inherent hazards of housing and other development close to forest lands. Oregon’s land-use laws have provided for more separation than is found in many states, but more can be done through building codes and zoning restrictions to make homes or other structures near timber land more fire resilient.

The anger many Oregonians have expressed toward the careless teenager who allegedly started the Eagle Creek inferno is understandable. But it must be matched by a commitment to make changes that will allow us to minimize the effects of future fires — whatever their cause.