A Long Road to RecoveryOriginally published September 19, 2020
Originally appeared in The Register-Guard. Shared with permission.
Driven by historic east winds, the recent fires in western Oregon moved faster and caused more devastation than any in recent history. Out of the ashes, countless heroic stories are emerging of Good Samaritans assisting evacuees, transporting animals, donating time and equipment to help fight the blazes and so much more. Our first responders and community volunteers, working to the point of exhaustion to save lives, property, and to stop these fires, are truly courageous.
Tuesday, Sept. 8 I found myself more anxious than ever before. My fiancé was helping with logistics on the Holiday Farm Fire. I also knew people who were camping near some of the fires and had received no warning of the impending danger.
This fire season is personal for everyone. From the family who lost their home, to the logger whose livelihood burned up, to our most vulnerable community members suffering from days of smoke inhalation and to everyone who is empathetic of this tragedy.
But how did this happen?
We don’t have all the answers and it will take time before after-action reviews are completed, but as a forester, I can provide just a little context.
In February of 2018, a large snow event dubbed “snowmageddon,” created huge swaths of fallen trees and debris throughout Lane County. This additional biomass combined with overly dense federal forest lands due to lack of management and a history of fire suppression established exorbitantly high fuel loads.
Climate change and local weather patterns have contributed to longer fire seasons and extreme drought conditions leading to exceedingly dry vegetation, low fuel moisture, hot weather and low relative humidity.
Then, we had a historic easterly wind event.
The winds knocked down trees, branches and unfortunately power lines. Blazes quickly spread across the landscape and into our communities. The winds not only caused these fires to grow with unusual speed but also created exceptionally hazardous firefighting conditions.
Firefighters truly were in triage mode. They prioritized saving lives and structures over stopping the spread of the fire. Direct attack couldn’t be utilized, so resources were needed to build contingency lines for backburning and to hold the fire before it could enter additional communities. Poor visibility and winds also limited the use of aerial resources.
In addition, our national firefighting resources were stretched thin as other states were already experiencing historic fire seasons. So many fires burned at once.
There already is an emerging debate of climate change vs. lack of forest management and it is honestly not an either or, it is both. Even if our state had approved aggressive climate policies this year, it wouldn't have changed what's happening right now, and it’s not all that has to be done.
Now is the time to unite. As we start down the long road to recovery, we must remind ourselves to be understanding and solution-oriented while asking ourselves, what are the immediate needs of our community and what can we work on today. Together, all things are possible. Fire solutions. Climate solutions. Forest solutions. Human solutions.
Amanda Astor is forest policy manager at Associated Oregon Loggers and a monthly contributor to The Register-Guard. She holds degrees in forest management, forest biology, and forest carbon: science, policy and management. She advocates for sustainable, economic and operationally feasible federal forest management.