Fire Policy

Forest Fire & Ecology

For tens of thousands of years, fire has graced the forests that now make up the Mt. Hood National Forest. From regular underburning and the occasional big fire in the eastside forests, to large westside blazes spanning thousands of acres, fire plays an essential role in maintaining ecosystem health. Over the past one hundred years, the character of the forests has been vastly changed by logging, grazing, development, and fire exclusion. As an organization committed to the protection of Mt. Hood National Forest, Bark advocates for public lands management using scientific principles to protect and restore ecological health, in part by correcting misinformation about wildfires.

Wildfire Lightning Round: Questions & Answers

Q1: Does fire destroy forests? 
A: Nope! Fire ecologists know that fire is an essential part of most forest types and many species actually depend on fire for survival. According to Dr. Dominick DellaSala, co-editor of The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, there are countless ecosystem benefits of large and severe fires because “the post-fire landscapes created by these fires are not ecological disasters, rather they are rare ecosystems that have a unique role to play in the long-term health of our forests.” 

Q2: Are fires burning larger and hotter because of a hundred years of fire suppression?
A: The intensity of a fire is based both on the fire cycle of the area and the specifics of each particular fire – with weather being the most important factor influencing fire behavior, so not necessarily. While a century of fire suppression has left specific ecosystems in conditions that are outside their natural range, this does not automatically mean a fire will burn more intensely. Fire ecologist Chad Hanson found, “contrary to popular misconception, areas that have missed the greatest number of natural fire cycles, due to fire suppression, are burning mostly at low-and moderate-intensity and are not burning more intensely than areas that have missed fewer fire cycles.” 

Q3: Is climate change resulting in larger, non-natural fires? 
A: This has yet to be determined. It is true that the West is in a period of drought, resulting in more fires compared to the last few decades. However, there was a similar drought from 1920-35, in which very large fires burned across the West. As both climate patterns and fire behavior are unpredictable, the facts don’t yet establish a simple connection. Despite the smoky haze in Portland, forest fire in this area is not unnatural and was historically much more common. In the last few years, 8 to 10 million acres in the U.S. have experienced wildland fires. By comparison, in 1930 and 1931 over 50 million acres burned in the U.S. and during a 10-year period from the 1920s to the 1930s an average of 30 million acres burned every year.

Q4: Because of climate change, shouldn’t fires be suppressed so that they don’t add additional carbon into the atmosphere?
A: Wildland fire releases about 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which may sound like a lot but is only 5% of the CO2 the U.S. releases annually through fossil fuel burning. Even the most severe fires transfer only about 5% of the forest’s carbon into the atmosphere. The rest is returned to the soil or released via the respiration of decomposition in a natural cycle that replenishes the forest with nutrients and feeds new growth. In contrast, logging releases over 60% of the stored carbon in forests and diminishes their ability to sequester carbon for many years. In addition, researchers recently found that the highest carbon sequestration levels were in forests that had previously experienced considerable occurrence of high-intensity fire.

Q5: If fire is good for the forest, why is the Forest Service spending so much money fighting it?
A: As observed by OSU professor John Bailey, "right now we're spending billions of dollars to prevent something that is going to happen sooner or later, whether we try to stop it or not, and something that can assist us in sound land management.” Why is this the case? Because the U.S. Forest Service has a policy of suppressing all fire ignitions outside of designated wilderness, coupled with a blank check from the Federal Treasury for firefighting. These two policies combine to create a reactive system that wastes millions of dollars, and sometimes firefighter lives, to fight fires that may have significant ecological benefit. 

Q6: How should the government plan for wildland fire management on public lands?  
A: We need to learn to co-exist with fire! For individuals and communities who live in the wildland-urban interface, fire is a real threat to home and livelihood. This could be proactively addressed by making homes and towns more firewise. The federal government could help support these efforts with technical and financial support. The Forest Service could also end its outdated full suppression policy and use wildland fire as a management tool to restore fire-dependent ecosystems. This, coupled with fixing the broken “blank-check” approach to fighting fires on National Forests, would result in a much more realistic approach to wildland fire management. 

Q7: Are burned forests still beautiful? 
A: YES!  Post-fire landscapes are unique, fascinating, and incredibly biodiverse. Ornithologist Richard Hutto, in his article The Beauty of a Burned Forest, states “Burned forest habitat is one of nature’s best-kept secrets because the public really hasn’t been told about the magical transformation a forest undergoes after severe fire.” 

As an organization committed to the protection of Mt. Hood’s forests, Bark advocates for land management practices that recognize wildlands fire as a positive agent of ecological change.

What would fire-positive land management on Mt. Hood National Forest include?

  1. A Fire Management Plan that authorizes wildland fire use and does not default to full suppression for every ignition outside of designated wilderness
  2. A policy shift away from the “blank check” approach to fire suppression efforts and toward focused firefighting that protects communities
  3. Fuels-reduction projects that focus on ecological restoration close to homes and communities, not commercial logging in the backcountry
  4. Fire-impacted landscapes allowed to naturally regenerate.
While this fire-positive approach challenges existing cultural assumptions about the value of wildlands fire, it is rooted in core principles of forest ecology and fire science. Now is the time for federal land managers to catch up with science and begin to work with – not fight – wildlands fire