OSU researchers respond to Oregon wildfires

A prescribed fire burns through Oregon. Prescribed burning is the practice of designing and triggering man-made fires, which can be used throughout the year to manage wildfire fuel supply.

Professors provide fire-conscious landscaping methods.

Flames engulf the forests that inhabit the state of Oregon as wildfire smoke fills the air and catches the next wind that blows by. Nearby cities are blanketed in a thick haze of smoke and ash. Official firefighters, volunteer responders and wildland fire ecologists all flock to the burns that raze the ground in hopes to extinguish and learn something from them. 

From June 2017 to present, wildfires have ravaged the western United States. At least six fires are still burning as of Oct. 2 in the state of Oregon, and this summer resulted in over 330,000 burned acres, according to the official State of Oregon fire information webpage. 

As the year progresses to shoulder seasons, researchers and advocates look to what made this past summer so intense, and what can be done in the next months to help resilience and rehabilitation.  

“A little of how we define fire seasons is based on resource availability, people and equipment,” said John Bailey, a silviculture and fire management professor in the department of forestry. “But most of the way we define is the condition of the fuel and the weather that we have—temperature, relative humidity, all that stuff.” 

According to Bailey, a wildfires are natural occurrence in some areas. 

“This is one important message, is that here in this part of the world we have a fairly predictable fire season. There is a good fire season essentially every year, even if we have a wet winter or spring,” Bailey said.

According to Meg Krawchuk, an assistant professor in forest ecosystems and society, and a self-proclaimed specialist in pyrogeography, there is evidence that wildfire has played an important ecological role in the Western United States long into the past. 

“Over evolutionary time and fire time, fire has been part of our ecological processes in the west even through glacial periods,” Krawchuk said.

The wildfire season has, on average, lengthened in its days, according to Bailey. 

“(In) most of the Pacific Northwest the fire season is 30 days longer. Other parts are 60 days,” Bailey said. “It’s always been predictably June to September, but now sometimes it’s starting in April. This year it didn’t start until June, but we’re still in it in October.” 

According to Bailey, this summer’s wildfires were intense, despite the wet winter and spring that Oregon experienced in the seasons before. A wetter winter and spring allow for more plant growth that could be potential wildfire fuel later in the season.

“This summer looks like it’s going to set some records for money spent and acreages or public impact because of smoke,” Bailey said. “In that sense, it was a good fire season for getting attention and having all the way up to federal Congress thinking about these issues.”

Fire ecologists and pyrogeography specialists regard the natural ecology, topography, management options and design of a landscape in order to help rehabilitate and restore a burned ecosystem, according to Krawchuk. Krawchuk specializes in the ecological processes that occur after a wildfire.

“The work that we were doing is focused on early phases of forest development after a fire, so about 10 to 12 years after a fire,” Krawchuk said. “Every fire is an opportunity for a fire ecologist to get data.” 

Krawchuk observes the immediate remnants of a burned habitat and differences between scorched and less burned adjacent habitats. These patches of forest that burn at different paces and temperatures create forest mosaics, according to Krawchuk. 

“So when we’re thinking about fire, we have these forest patches that burn at really high intensities and high severity where you can lose the canopy, and very dramatic changes in forest structure and composition occur,” Krawchuk said. “And then mixed in with this mosaic are patches of places that don’t burn, or burn at lower severity.”

Krawchuk works with The Fire Refugia Project, which studies the ecological differences between forest mosaic habitats.

“Where do they occur? Is there anything predictable about where they occur? What is the composition and function of those fire refugia? What are they doing in terms of providing landscape legacies to the next generation of the forest structure moving in?” Krawchuk said.

Fire refugia may provide shelter and new seed sources for the rehabilitating burned habitat, according to Krawchuk. Whether these new seed sources are triggered in the soil or transported from outside the burn perimeter, new plants are able to grow from these new seed sources.

“So we end up with species who set seeds and those seeds become part of the soil seed bank, and they’re actually released or promoted into germination by the heat of fire, sort of a heat scarification,” Krawchuk said. “So when that fire comes, those seed coats open up and all of a sudden you get this establishment of an early forest community.” 

After a fire, or any event that clears a habitat, occurs, new organisms can establish homes in the new habitat using an ecological process called secondary succession, according to Krawchuk. 

“For those post-fire successional progressions, it’s contingent on the initial conditions of what is left behind, the legacy structures, what is left behind from the pre-fire forest,” Krawchuk said. “Those developmental pathways all depend on who gets in there first, what was left behind to provide the opportunity, weather and temperature.”

Development of new established communities may take more time than expected, according to Krawchuk.

“Some of these other cases where the seed source may be farther away, succession will eventually occur,” Krawchuk said. “The forest will very likely come back, it might just take a little bit of time.” 

Forests and grasslands take their own ecological time to recover from wildfire events, which often spurs impatience in the restoration community, according to Krawchuk. 

“The one thing that maybe is useful to put in mind is the idea that nature has her tempo. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s fast, and often we’re impatient. We want to see forest recovery,” Krawchuk said.

According to Bailey, wildfires impact not only the surrounding landscape, but also impact the ways society interacts with fire.

“We’ve gone through a couple generations where we kind of separated ourselves from fire and it’s natural role and the realities of it out there,” Bailey said. “We kind of got carried away with the evils of fire.”

Bailey incorporates practices of fire consciousness into his courses at OSU. Fire consciousness takes into account better land management designs, fire-resilient plant species and prescribed burns in the off-season. 

Prescribed burning, the practice of designing and triggering man-made fires, can be used throughout the year to manage wildfire fuel supply, according to Bailey. Overuse of natural wildfire suppression techniques may create more fuel material to burn in the hot, dry months. 

“We know full well in our minds that if this catches on fire a month from now when it’s hot and dry and windy, it’s going to burn like crazy out here,” Bailey said. “We cannot resist putting it out even knowing down the road we may make it worse.”

Bailey specializes in developing prescribed wildfire burn tactics, and teaches students to develop their own strategic prescribed burn plans, keeping in mind elements such as weather, fuel source and topography.

“How do we partner, how do we marry prescribed burning and have a prescribed burn mentality, with wildfire burning?” Bailey said. 

Along with prolonged fire suppression, researchers have seen how the extended fire season has been affected by climate change, according to Bailey. 

“Fuels are worse, climate is worse, that’s why these things are going to burn,” Bailey said. “Now it’s just picking when and how we’d like it to burn that will help us with subsequent weather conditions.”  

Downward trending climate patterns have caught the attention of wildfire researchers around the world, according to Bailey.

“We have what was being viewed as anomalous years and a little bit of a problem, now really approaching crisis,” Bailey said.

When anomalies and bothersome events start occurring, the subject starts becoming a crisis, Bailey says.

According to Nicole Strong, an assistant professor of practice in the College of Forestry, landscape foresters have said something like this might happen for years.

“On one hand it’s frustrating, on the other it’s brought a lot attention and started discussions,” Strong said.

OSU Extension Foresters, such as Nicole Strong, collaborate with many stakeholders, including county, state and federal partners, to create the best land management decisions.

“I serve on forest collaborative groups that look at the science and make restoration recommendations based on that,” said Strong.  “We try to provide the best available science to help people make informed decisions that help them meet management goals.” 

On the individual level, household and business owners can help create a defensible space by designing a firewise landscape, according to Amy Jo Detweiler, an associate professor of home and commercial horticulture at the OSU Extension Service.

“A fire-wise landscape is one that doesn’t contribute to the fuel source, has plants that fall into the fire-resistant category and looks to improve the defensible space around the home,” Detweiler said.

According to Detweiler, homeowners can design their landscaping accordingly to be more fire-wise. Detweiler advises landscaping with plants that have a high water content and lie low to the ground. Such fire-resistant plants include grasses, day lilies, turfgrass, maples and serviceberry. Other strategies such as mindful spacing of fuels and hardscaping can deter wildfire from approaching a home as well, Detweiler added.

Bailey says, a shift in public mindset of wildfires may be the step towards more effective management tactics. 

“I’m sorry that my predecessors promised the residents of Oregon that it’s never going to be smoky, that we can protect you from fire. It’s an impossibility,” Bailey said. “Fire and smoke is as natural as the rain. Fire is a reality, it’s inevitable.” 

What is important is normalizing the reality of our Oregon fire-adapted ecosystems, and finding out the facts for yourself, according to Strong. 

“It’s really important for students to not jump to conclusions about fire,” Strong said. “Delve in and have a curiosity about the local landscape before making any conclusions, judgments or recommendations.”