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Thoughtful Forest Management and Better Building Practices Can Help Mitigate the Impact of Wildfires

Resources: You all are well aware of the cyclical nature of wildfires. But against this backdrop of another expected wildfire season in the western part of the United States, why have this year’s fires generated more attention? Why have recent discussions about forest management been especially salient?

Matthew Wibbenmeyer: This year’s fire season has been especially extreme. Five of the 10 largest fires in California’s history have occurred this year. California is making a habit of breaking records with its wildfires, but that’s a pretty notable series of fires. Oregon experienced a really dramatic series of wildfire events, too. The smoke that went along with these fires was extremely thick and widespread and engulfed major population centers on the West Coast for weeks.

Ann Bartuska: And because of COVID-19, we’re all much more aware of our setting and our space—so not being able to go outside and do things because of smoke is more noticeable. People in Massachusetts have told me that their sky has been hazy for days, and that’s really unusual. As Matt said, there’s a widespread nature to these fires, but also a wider swath of people—not just those immediately by the fire—who have been exposed to the consequences of the fire.

David N. Wear: This season has been especially impactful, but it’s important, too, to think about the last decade or so and how many extreme fire seasons we’ve had in that stretch of time. In just the last five years, we’ve had the Okanogan Complex Fire in Washington; we saw the big impacts on Santa Rosa; and we had the destruction of Paradise, California, which brought substantial human and property losses.

AB: To follow that thread: We have a major forest issue, but we also have the issue of where people are being allowed to build homes. We really have to take a hard look at how we’re ensuring that people are aware they’re putting themselves in harm’s way. Already, they’re starting to rebuild these same communities, and we’re just going to have this same cycle again in 10 years when the forest regrows and fills in and there’s another drought. We’ve got this terrible human cycle going on.

Whether forest thinning and prescribed burns are effective strategies for reducing wildfires has been a heated debate for decades. How can we productively discuss the best ways to implement these strategies, given the longstanding controversy? Has this perennial debate changed or shifted this year, given how exceptional wildfire seasons have been recently?

AB: We do actually have data to show that if you do proper thinning followed by prescribed burning to get a fire-prone forest to the right density, then you can really keep the fire burning on the ground with less intensity and less spread. The challenge is that you have to have permission to burn, and you have a very short burn season for prescribed fires. You also have to have the permission to harvest, which presents challenges, because people are concerned about cutting trees. It’s not complicated, but there are multiple places where there has to be what I call a “social license” to be able to accomplish the task.

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