ST. GEORGE – Offering possible solutions instead of assigning blame, Dr. Paul Hessburg, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, has traveled across the West to share the result of 30 years of research into wildfires and what might be done to prevent them.
Hessburg, who lived through wildfires in his home of Wanatchee, Washington, in 2015, stopped at Southern Utah University Oct. 18 during a run through Utah with his “Era of Megafires” presentation.
A megafire is a wildfire that reaches 100,000 acres, Hessburd said, and they have become more common in recent years.
The mixed-media presentation, done in collaboration with North40 Productions, offered animations and videos featuring interviews with experts and others impacted by wildfires. The video segments ran between Hessburg’s speaking to event attendees.
“We’re trying to take all the research we’ve published in journals and written in books and get it to the people in the community so they can understand why we’re having these big fires,” Hessburg said.
Hessburg, who is a part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, said the way the Forest Service has treated fire suppression, among other factors, has unwittingly helped turn western forests into timber boxes.
Another part of the problem is that climate change is creating drier, hotter summers, he said, which has added an extra 40-80 days to the fire season.
Unless changes are made in how national forests are managed and the how the public views certain preventative measures, massive wildfires like the Brian Head Fire and the more recent fires in California will continue to plague the country year after year, Hessburg said.
How it used to be
Up until the early 20th century, western forests used to be patchy. There were clusters of trees separated by open fields of grass and shrubs. The separation, among other factors like typography, helped to keep forest fires much smaller than they are today, Hessburg said.
The fires that occurred naturally – and there were many – also helped keep the forest and the supporting ecosystem alive and healthy, he said.
However, as settlers spread westward, practices of grazing would take away the grass lands that helped spread the smaller fires while railroads became unintentional firebreaks.
While stopping the spread of fires would seem like a good idea, it wasn’t in this case, Hessburg said. It allowed potential fire fuels to build up while also disrupting the way fire had worked on the landscape for millennia.
The U.S. Forest Service turned its attention to fire suppression after a massive fire known as the “Big Burn” that torched 3 million acres in 1910.
For several decades after the Big Burn, the Forest Service was very good at putting out fires, but that started to change after 1985, Hessburg said, and it confused the Forest Service.
“What we were seeing is that fire is a pretty important part of the of the landscape and putting it out wasn’t our best idea,” he said.
Today those patchy forests of over a century ago are along gone, replaced with forests that are thick and dense. Hessburg refers to it as an “epidemic of trees.”
“It was that patchiness of grassland and shrubland and woodland that was actually helping the forest be forest,” he said. “And that’s one of the main ingredients we took out of the landscape.”
The patchiness needs to be restored, Hessburg said, but in order for that to happen, elements of forest management practice, timber regulations and public opinion need to changed.
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A summary of Hessburg’s “Era of Megafires” presentation given as a part of a TEDx event in Bend, Oregon, earlier this year.
Hessburg recommends that a measure of timber harvesting be allowed in areas at risk for future fires, as well as in areas around communities that exist in the middle of the forest.
“Are there ways to profitably harvest the forest to be while also helping the forest? We think so,” Hessburg said.
However, he noted that much of the logging infrastructure the nation once had isn’t as extensive as it used to be and will need to be rebuilt.
There has been legislation introduced in the Senate recently that would allow for timber harvesting.
One bill seeks to ease environmental rules for forest thinning on federal lands while another would authorize funding to help at-risk communities prevent wildfires and create a pilot program to cut down trees in the most fire-prone areas.
Under a streamlined approval process proposed in the latter bill, forest managers would thin pine forests near populated areas and do controlled burns in remote regions. The bill also calls for detailed reviews of any wildfire that burns over 100,000 acres.
Thinning the forest would also help in slowing the spread of pathogens and infestations among trees, like the bark beetles that’s killed trees in the Dixie National Forest, Hessburg said.
More prescribed burns
Sometimes call “Rx burns,” prescribed burns help clear the forest floor of potential fire fuels. This can help limit a fire’s path and size. While a valuable practice, it isn’t done near as often as it should, Hessburg said.
The smoke from a prescribed burns is the barrier to this practice being used more. Because of concerns from the public over the smoke that may last a day or two, these burns are regulated.
“Wildfire smoke gets a pass. It’s not regulated,” Hessburg said. “And it’s much worse.”
This is an area where the public can turn the practice around and promote more prescribed burning than less, he said, encouraging those attending to contact lawmakers and speak in favor of the practice.
“We need to do it more and garner public support,” Hessburg said.
Over 50 percent of the Forest Service’s budget goes to fire suppression, and a good chunk of that goes to protecting homes built within what is known as the wildland-urban interfaces. As well, 60 percent of new housing is being built in that interface.
“It’s a homeowner’s responsibility to help firefighters save their homes,” Hessburg said.
This includes creating a “defensible space” around a home – up to 35 feet or more – that is devoid of fire fuels.
Care can also be taken to construct homes and related structures out of fire-resistant materials.
Private property owners can also see to thinning the woods on their property and clearing out debris.
“It’s not just a public lands issue, it’s a private lands issue too,” said Mike Melton, fire management office with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and Public Lands.
For individuals who want to learn more about creating a fire-adapted community, Hessburg recommends they visit FireWise.org.
Megafires will continue to sprout up across the West if changes aren’t made to forest management practices and public opinion, Hessburg said, and it’s only going to get worse if as time passes.
“One of the most important things is for citizens to become involved more in public lands management,” Hessburg said. “I think the public has forgotten that the public lands are ‘ours’ as co-owners. We need more public participation in how they area managed.”
Hessburg’s stop in Cedar City was a part of three-stop tour through Utah that included stops in Logan and Park City.
The “Era of Megafires” presentation has taken Hessburg across seven Western states where he has shared the program with nearly 100 communities.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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