Severe hurricanes are covered extensively in the news because of their relative infrequency and the utter destruction they bring. While wildfires are destructive, they are also a fairly regular occurrence in certain states, particularly those with hot or dry climates. So news of them tends not to travel much outside of the affected states’ borders. However, unlike hurricanes, we cando something about wildfires.
The past several weeks has seen the news filled with terrifying stories of hurricanes pummeling the southeast U.S. and our Caribbean territories, but behind the wall of water and wind laid the stories of roaring flames spreading across the west. Unfortunately, national coverage of these awful events did not spread as quickly as the flames, with most news stories occurring in state newspapers and relatively few in national news outlets.
While wildfires are a large blow for local community members, the wildfire’s impact extends far beyond. Many aspects of tourism are interrupted including visitors’ access to affected areas, and jobs and trade such as lodging and sales, and these losses continue even after the fire is extinguished. Damage to the natural resource of the trees themselves cannot be forgotten, as well as the loss of wildlife habitats. The economic and physical destruction caused by a major wildfire can be similar to a small hurricane, but there is action that can be taken to reduce the impact of a forest fire.
Fire was often used by Native Americans to open forests and promote biodiversity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the occasional small fire helps to thin areas, allowing new growth to develop, and that some species of plants are even dependent upon fire for dormant seeds to sprout.
In 1905, the U.S. Forest Service recognized wildfires as a hazard and began to suppress them, isolating plants from this important resource and indirectly promoting larger and more intense fires. This policy has since changed, but the time it was in force was enough to set our forests off kilter.
Without the natural balance obtained through frequent burning, forests grew denser, providing more fuel for fires to consume. Reports by the U.S. Forest Service have also shown that widespread insect outbreaks have led to an increase in the number of dead standing trees, or snags. These trees fuel wildfires, allowing them to traverse deeper into the forest and grow at times to uncontrollable levels.
Climate change also plays a part, especially its role in earlier snowmelt as a result of warmer summers has led to warm and dry climates that are the perfect atmosphere for fires to thrive. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that a 1°C increase in temperature could increase area of a forest burned during a fire by as much as 600 percent.
Some people may think that wildfires only impact the forest, but in fact the negative impacts of wildfires can stretch for miles and influence the whole state. Each year, 7-8 million acres of forest and grasslands burn, costing tens of millions of dollars for firefighting. The 2017 fire season alone has already cost over $2 billion, as compared to $1.6 billion last year as reported by the U.S. Forest Service. In addition, wildfires lead to reduced air quality and numerous other health impacts for those living in the area.
Recently, Oregon suffered a massive hit as a result of the Eagle Creek Fire, which burned an estimated 33,682 acres as reported by The Oregonian. Although this a relatively small acreage as opposed to some of Oregon’s historic fires, this one hit close to home.
The fire started in the area of Eagle Creek, quickly spreading west towards Portland and even jumping the Columbia River into Washington. There were 140 hikers evacuated from the area, and Highway 84, one of Oregon’s main thoroughfares, was shut down due to the fire.
Smoke from the fire rolled over Portland and stretched even farther west of the city. In some areas, ash built up to an inch in height covering resident’s driveways and patios. Portland residents Wesley and Cassie Boisvert described how the smoke caused hazy driving conditions and made your eyes sting. The air quality was so bad that they worried about bringing their young daughter outside. Residents with respiratory problems were advised to stay indoors. Even though the fire occurred four weeks ago, there is still a noticeable amount of smoke hanging in the air.
The damage was considerable within the forest. The trails in the Eagle Creek area, beloved by all those who live in Oregon, suffered large amounts of damage and continue to be closed to hikers. Residents followed the progress of the fire, heartbroken, afraid to check the news in case it brought worsening updates of the fire’s destruction, especially in the historic area of Multnomah Falls. As it was, the destruction of trails at Eagle Creek was a large hit to the community. For Oregonians, not being able to get out to that area of the gorge is sad and devastating. The access to nature is why people live in Oregon, as reflected by Portland resident Cassie.
The U.S. Forest Service and other forest management entities often face major legal issues when trying to employ methods such as forest thinning to prevent wildfires. Thinning a forest by specific cutting decreases forest density, thereby limiting the possible fuel for a fire. Many environmental groups view this practice the same as logging, but their viewpoint does not consider the destructive impacts a fire can have if it rages through a densely-packed forest.
Controlled burns are another resource management method that is more commonly employed today. Purposely burning sections of a forest helps to decrease density and contributes to ecosystems that require fire to survive.
While wildfires are typically a concern for the most vulnerable areas like California, Oregon, and Montana, it is important to support better policies for forest management and to work toward preventing the rise of major destructive wildfires. In the end, this may not be enough in the increasingly hot and dry climates of the west, but it gives us the fighting chance that might just be enough to save our forests.