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The wildfires that tore through our communities and devastated natural areas were terrifying. We are so sorry for those who had to flee, for those who lost their homes, for those impacted by the fire and smoke. We are sad, too, for the individual animals that might have been harmed due to the wildfires, but it is comforting to note that nature is resilient and populations are generally not wiped out by fire.
Most of the species found in the western states have evolved with wildfire, and although there may be some exceptions, their populations will recover. Fire allows many seeds to germinate and the growing vegetation will provide a source of habitat and food to numerous animals. The Black-backed Woodpecker, which has been a candidate for the endangered species list, actually thrives in burnt conifer forests, where it gobbles the plentiful wood-boring beetles. Other insects come in and, along with the new growth, provide good sources of food for wildlife. The snags, large dead trees, provide shelter to birds, especially cavity nesters. The snags also help to anchor the soil, shade young conifers from intense sunlight, and provide habitat for many insect-eating bats, birds, and small mammals.
It is essential now to move forward in a way that avoids misconceptions about fire and creates the best possibility for recovery. Several misguided proposals to increase logging are already being discussed.
What does the science say?
Basically, logging the forest does not help. In fact, it may make things worse. It reduces the numbers of thick-barked, fire-resilient trees that help to slow the spread of wildfire. When the stumps and debris resulting from a logging operation dry out, they act as kindling when a fire roars through. The small, uniform trees planted after logging also burn readily. The lack of shade after timber extraction creates hotter, drier, and windier conditions. Timber operations additionally help to spread highly combustible invasive grasses. Past data indicates that previously logged forests burn hotter and faster. Post-fire logging continues the destruction of habitat while introducing invasive species, compacting soils, and slowing recovery of populations in the burnt habitat.
According to the Department of Forestry, 977,830 acres in Oregon burned this last year, but only 16,868 acres burned in 2019, despite the fact that there was not a gigantic increase in fuel over the interval. Scientists agree that intact trees are not fueling wildfires. So what is? The answer is: drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and high winds. All are climate events and all are becoming more acute due to climate change. When politicians try to divert the public’s attention by proposing more logging rather than addressing climate change, our antennae should go up (or maybe our head crests). We should be concentrating on developing Community Wildfire Defense Plans and creating fire-wise buffers around communities and homes. We should retain diverse, complex, fire-resistant forests. We should utilize controlled, managed burning to reduce fuels. We should improve detection, warning, and evacuation assistance for folks who live in fire zones. We should address climate change. Let your representatives know.