Thinking on an “Era of Megafires”

After a docile 2016 wildfire season and what looks to be the wettest October on record in many parts of Washington, getting folks out to discuss “megafires” could have been a tall order. But an estimated 100 people showed up on a Thursday evening to hear Dr. Paul Hessburg present “Era of Megafires”, a powerful multi-media portrayal of the history, current crisis and potential solutions surrounding wildfire on the western landscape. Dr. Hessburg made it personal, with the stories of friends and neighbors that had lost homes in the 2015 fire season. He made it relevant and interesting, sharing research that he and others have conducted, coupled with stunning imagery that captured landscapes changing over time in the face of fire, fire suppression and human activity.

Particularly encouraging was the overlap between the solutions Dr. Hessburg put forward and the work being advanced by Mt. Adams Resource Stewards and others, such as Underwood Conservation District, on the Mt. Adams landscape. More specifically, the presentation served as a call to action surrounding the following themes:

Mechanical thinning: Hessburg described an “epidemic of trees” resulting from a century of fire suppression, timber harvest that removed the most fire resistant trees, and impacts to natural, less destructive fire regimes from grazing, rail lines and forest fragmentation. Thinning to promote forest resiliency has been a key component of MARS’ work. Just this year, we’re approaching removal of nearly 2 million board feet, or over 600 log truck loads of mostly small diameter trees removed to improve forest health on projects we manage for others and lands we own. Not only do we apply the best available science in carefully designating the “right” trees for removal, but we utilize a highly capable local workforce, in turn creating needed economic activity in our rural communities.

Prescribed burning: The presentation was emphatic that prescribed fire must play a more significant role if we want to proactively shape how we want our fire and smoke. The devil is in the details, but MARS has been breaking new ground through our efforts to carefully and thoughtfully return fire to forests in a way that does good. We officially conducted our first prescribed burn in the spring of 2016 across a 27 acre unit on the Mt. Adams Community Forest. It was a resounding success, and we are currently developing plans for a cross boundary burn with neighboring US Fish and Wildlife Service managers in 2017. We are also assessing possibilities surrounding development of an internal crew that could provide similar services to other landowners.

Preparedness in the WUI (where homes and forests meet): It’s not an undisputed responsibility of fire crews to respond to at-risk homes built in fire prone forests, but smart planning and investment of resources can make saving homes from uncontrolled wildfire much more possible. Underwood Conservation District works with many Klickitat and Skamania landowners on “firewise” efforts focused on a 200’ zone around residences. MARS Board Chair, Jim White (on behalf of UCD) has conducted over 80 firewise home assessments in the Trout Lake Valley. MARS has focused our efforts beyond that 200’ as described above. Dr. Hessburg cited a study by Headwaters Economics indicating that something like 84% of potentially developable WUI in the West is, fortunately, still forest. One of the best things we can do is avoid the expansion of residences into forestlands that will sooner or later experience fire. This perspective has heavily influenced the Mt. Adams Community Forest Project, where our goal is to strategically invest in the acquisition of forests from willing sellers in a way that contributes to – among other things – more fire adapted and resilient communities.

The mechanical thinning portion of the presentation also highlighted wood products as an important by-product from thinning projects designed to improve forest resiliency to fire. Hessburg asked audience members to close their eyes and envision their ideal forest. MARS is in the process of reconfiguring our efforts around wood product innovation with such a vision of our idealized forest, and the products that could come from it. We are calling this initiative SPARK and are excited to have recently brought on board the expertise of Michael Low to direct this effort.

MARS was able to bring Era of Megafires to the area with the support of the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and our partnership with Underwood Conservation District. Fire Adapted Communities Learning Networks are part of a much larger national cohesive strategy adopted in recent years that takes into consideration much of what Dr. Hessburg shared. But most essential to both strategies and learning networks is engagement from people living in our Mt. Adams Communities as we continue devising strategies to tackle the enormous challenge before us!

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