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Fires used to be more frequent

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Southern Oregon’s forests burned about every eight years before wagon trains brought farmers and ranchers to the region in the 1850s. Wet seasons produced underbrush that would dry out and become fuel for dry years that would follow. The fires cleared the landscape for new growth and the regeneration of the forest while the strongest and most fire-resilient trees survived to grow to massive proportions. Fire has always been part of Southern Oregon’s landscape.

Those are the conclusions documented in an exhaustive and eminently readable study just published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, “Forest Ecology and Management.” Local forest scientists studied the Rogue Valley’s historic fires by using slices from tree stumps in 13 mixed-growth Southern Oregon locations.

“We want to learn from historical fire regimes how to manage this landscape more sustainably, realizing that we have an investment to make with a cohesive restoration strategy,” explains Dr. Kerry Metlen, lead author on the article and a forest scientist with The Nature Conservancy.

The historical analysis of tree rings and bark scarring in 14th-century trees were cross matched with sedimentary remains and climate data. The scientists, who are associated with The Nature Conservancy, Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service, speak as one about the importance of fire to maintain forest health, especially as climate change brings increased temperatures and decreased rain to Southern Oregon.

A close examination of tree rings document the seasonality of historic fires and show much of the fire activity occurred in spring and fall and not in the hottest, driest months of the year. While natural events like lightning would have produced some of these off-season fires, the earliest Rogue Valley explorers observed Native Americans regularly using fire to clear the land to forage for food.

“When we look at the disruption of historical fire regimes, we have strong documentation that what was a regular eight-year fire return interval suddenly, as early as 1852, became much, much longer. There are many reasons for that: forced displacement of Native Americans and their well-documented burning patterns, the introduction of huge herds of ungulates, fields developing and Euro-Americans just putting out fires,” Metlen says. “Over time you have the gradual infill of conifers and over time you have uncharacteristic forest. You’re growing a new sort of fuel load. It won’t carry those frequent fires but it will carry those larger fires. It primes the pump for a megafire.”

These forest scientists are focused on the critical role that controlled burns — those intentional and highly managed fires — have to reduce fuel load, renew the forest and protect the built environment that may be close to forested areas.

Metlen and other scientists believe that wild fire risk to communities can be reduced by 50 percent. “If we choose as a society to invest with an all lands, all hands approach consistent with the national wildfire strategy, we think we can turn the tide,” Metlen says. “While it’s expensive to do the work, on average about $1,000 an acre, think of the cost of fire suppression, forest rehabilitation, as well as houses and habitats lost when we don’t invest in the work.”

Darren Borgias is the southwest Oregon conservation director for The Nature Conservancy and has been a key player in building partnerships and consensus, finding a middle ground for forest management in the region. Lomakatsi, the Bureau of Land Managment, Forest Service, Nature Conservancy, Southern Oregon University and the city of Ashland are just a few of the partners working together as part of the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative and the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Plan.

Borgias has seen firsthand how local partnerships prepare for a controlled burn. It’s no simple matter. Extensive planning, significant preparation and professional resources are required to execute the burn safely, he says, adding that prescribed burns are something the community needs to learn more about and needs to be more comfortable with. The best time for prescribed burns is the off season for fires — spring and fall — when temperatures are lower and there’s more moisture in the ground.

“There’s a lot to plan for in a prescribed burn and that plan has to be written out to account for all the weather conditions, the humidity. They have to plan for what the wind will do with the smoke,” Borgias notes. “They look at the ground to consider a new trail or use an existing road or a barren rock area to use as control lines. They integrate all of these existing factors and think of what they need in terms of resources like staffing, communications necessary to keep everybody coordinated, engines, hundreds of feet of hose. Then they think of contingencies.”

Borgias sums it all up this way: “Climate change and our ability to continue to suppress fires challenges our paradigms and we have this need for transformational change in how we manage the forest and it’s driven by that interplay between climate change and fire.”

The Nature Conservancy invites the public to join two of the paper's authors on a field trip to a managed forest location from 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15. Call 541-552-2218 to reserve a space or RSVP at bit.ly/2xbrzOf.

Also on Saturday, there will be a free, public Smoke & Fire Summit. Four expert panels will discuss forest management, health implications, economic resilience, and climate mitigation and adaptation starting at 9:30 a.m. and continuing through 12:30 p.m at Stevenson Union on the Southern Oregon University campus.

Email Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

(Sept. 17: Story updated to correct spelling ofDr. Kerry Metlen's name.)

Clem Stockard and Kerry Metlen preparing a fire-scar sample for collection from an old stump. (The Nature Conservancy / Keith Perchemlides)
Fire scars and continued growth in a Jeffrey pine. (The Nature Conservancy / Kerry Metlen)