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The Northwest Burns, Too

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

With a recent blaze burning on the other side of the mountains, fire has been on my mind a lot recently. In the last few years the Owens River has taken advantage of anthropogenic fires to clear more of its watershed of the overgrowth that has choked it for years, particularly in February when the winds get high and the air gets dry. But it’s not the fires of eastern California that I am discussing today. My mind is on a different region entirely.

I have several friends and associates who live in the Pacific Northwest. More than one has said to me that they live in the region because “we don’t get big fires like they do down in California.” Sadly, they are not seeing the reality of their situation. The fact of the matter is that fire is a major part of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem and has been for many years. Though the metropolises of Seattle and Portland may not see wildfire (yet), it happens every year in the region.

Let’s start with the natural fire regimes of the Pacific Northwest. Most of the forest land in and west of the Cascades consists of fir, cedar, Douglas-fir, and lodgepole pine. All of these trees thrive in stand replacement wildfire regimes. This means that every couple of centuries, the entire forest burns to the ground and is replaced by a new one. Some of these fires are very large, covering tens of thousands of acres in one event. A complex of stand-replacement fires in the lodgepole pine forests above Ellensburg, Washington, in 2012 covered over 70,000 acres.

East of the Cascades we have the ponderosa pine forests. Their fire regime doesn’t include the rare stand-replacement wildfires, but it does feature much more frequent ground fires. According to palaeoecological data and tree ring dating, fires naturally occur on these forests every three to eight years. Then, of course, we have the grasslands and sagebrush steppe, where fast-moving ground fires may occur every few years. That’s a lot of fire for a region of the country that supposedly doesn’t have fires at all.

As you saw from the Ellensburg example above, fires in the Pacific Northwest aren’t small, either. A 2020 wildfire in northeastern Washington state burned over 220,000 acres. Then, of course, we have the famous Tillamook Burn, a series of fires that destroyed a total of 350,000 acres of forest. Scars from this event are still found in the mountains there, almost a century after the fact.

There are a lot of fire problems present in the Pacific Northwest that are being overlooked by the general populace. The exotic cheatgrass is invading the area’s grasslands and deserts. This is greatly altering the local fire regime. Fires that used to occur every few years are now happening annually, and often in the same place as recent previous burns. A part of the Kittitas Valley burned three years in a row, each fire burning within the scar of the last.

Why is this happening? Well, it’s the nature of cheatgrass. This is a fire-adapted species that thrives on wildfires. The grass builds a deep root ball that protects it when it burns, allowing it to sprout back quickly. Worse, it only expands with fire. Thus, the more it burns, the healthier and thicker the cheatgrass becomes. This grass also thrives on atmospheric carbon and higher temperatures, so our current anthropogenic climate change is only making it grow faster and heartier. This means more and more fires in cheatgrass infested regions like the Pacific Northwest’s non-forested areas.

Let’s head to the forests, where past fire suppression policies have led to drastic fuel overloads in many areas. One expert calls these “tinderbox forests” because all they are waiting for is the spark that creates the next massive wildfire. This fuel overloading causes all sorts of problems for the ecosystem, from the weakening of trees and spread of diseases to the loss of browse and habitat for local wildlife. When the forest does burn, it burns large. In fact, fires due to this problem sometimes do more harm than good, baking and sterilizing soils due to the intense heat. It’s a real threat all over the West, not just here.

Only adding to the fuel load in the Pacific Northwest, especially in central Oregon, are beetle infestations. Some areas of the Deschutes National Forest are so infested that they are too dangerous for recreation due to tree fall hazards. This issue has many sources, including the invasion by exotic beetles, the spread of tree diseases, past fire suppression tactics discussed above, and increased drought due to climate change. The more bugs you get, the more trees die, and the more potential for dangerous wildfires rises.

Let us not forget to address the biggest fire issue facing the Pacific Northwest- climate change. The effects of anthropogenic climate change include several problems associated with wildfire, such as higher temperatures, changing wind patterns, increasing drought, and more dry lightning storms. All these changes spell trouble for areas of the Pacific Northwest that didn’t used to experience wildfires, such as the Portland metro area. Recent fires have burned uncomfortably close, one torching over 40,000 acres of the Columbia River Gorge and another threatening parts of the east side. You should expect the trend to continue in the future. Whether it is in the Clackamas grasslands or the West Hills, I have no doubt that Portland will see a wildfire someday, and when that day comes they will be utterly unprepared for the onslaught.

All over the Pacific Northwest, fires are burning larger and with more devastation. Wildfires in both Oregon and Washington have reached six-digit acreages in the last several years. A recent blaze nearly obliterated the town of Detroit, Oregon. Fires have threatened several Oregon towns, in particular, forcing evacuations and burning homes and businesses. All can be linked to climate change that is only compounded by the other situations discussed above.

Unfortunately, as I have talked about in another blog post, there is no simple solution to the issue. Just know this is not a “California problem,” it is a western problem, including the Pacific Northwest. Especially the Pacific Northwest! Residents of the region need to admit to and accept their own fire problem before they can start taking the appropriate actions. They should not let false pride be their downfall.

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