Why Prescribed Fire Matters: Healthier forests. Safer communities

Why Prescribed Fire Matters: Healthier forests. Safer communities

Contributed by: Pete Caligiuri – Forest Ecologist, The Nature Conservancy, Bob Madden – Deputy Chief of Fire Operations, Bend Fire Department, and Alex Enna – Prescribed Fire & Fuels Program Manager, Deschutes National Forest.

We’re sure you all saw signs of prescribed fire (also known as controlled burning) this spring. Perhaps it was a plume of smoke rising up one afternoon in April or May, or smoke lingering in the morning air the following day until temperatures rose and the winds picked up, or the browned needles on some trees. Compared to past years, you may have even noticed more smoke this spring.

That’s because the months of April and May in Central Oregon are the time when we have the right balance of temperature and moisture (not too hot, not too cold…not too wet, not too dry) that allow local prescribed fire professionals to safely implement carefully planned, prescribed burning around Central Oregon. And this year, fire professionals were increasingly focused on conducting prescribed burns immediately around our communities, in the area known as Wildland-Urban Interface (or WUI).

Why, you ask? Our low- and mid-elevation forests (we’re talking about the ponderosa pine-dominated forests around Sisters, Bend, Sunriver, LaPine) are adapted to, and in fact depend on, mild fire to remain healthy and resilient in the face of things like drought, insects, and wildfires.

Our use of prescribed fire during the spring means that all the plants and animals (and people) that depend on the forest for food, homes, livelihoods, and sense of place, have a healthier, greener forest now and for future generations.

Low-intensity fire will open areas up to the sun and create nutrient-rich soil conditions that will stimulate seeds to sprout.

In that way, prescribed burning close to communities and popular recreation areas not only meets forest restoration goals but also creates a safer environment in our communities and for our firefighters during future wildfires. It means we are doing what we can to keep our communities, firefighters, and all the things we care about in the forest safer in the face of future wildfires.

Some examples of where prescribed burns were conducted this spring include The High Desert Museum, Shevlin Park, Phil’s Trailhead, and the Rimrock Trailhead, as well as areas near the Crossroad’s subdivision in Sisters and areas immediately west and south of Bend.

All told, 4,910 acres of this kind of good, mild fire was conducted this spring, including 1,669 acres that were completed during the two-week 2018 Central Oregon Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, or COTREX. COTREX is an example of Central Oregon innovation and leadership in the realm of forest restoration and community wildfire risk reduction. During the first two weeks of May prescribed fire professionals from Arkansas, California, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and France joined local fire professionals here in Central Oregon to share expertise and best practices in prescribed fire, all while conducting critical controlled burning in the forests around our communities to reduce the risk of extreme wildfire, make our communities and firefighters safer, and our forests healthier.

We all know that our forests define who we are and drive the Central Oregon economy.

With that comes a responsibility to steward our forests, making them healthier and more resilient. So whether you live near the forest, play in the forest, work in the forest, or just enjoy the forest as the scenic backdrop for your life, we all count on a healthy, resilient forest.

And now the forest is counting on us. It’s up to all of us to be ambassadors for forest restoration, including prescribed burning. And while we recognize that smoke in the air from those controlled burns is not ideal, we also know from experiences like the Milli Fire outside Sisters and from science across the western U.S. that it is a critical part of forest restoration and community protection.

That’s why we and our partners in public health and air quality have worked together to create an improved fire, smoke, air quality, and public health information website for Central Oregon (www.centraloregonfire.org). During the spring and fall, it will address questions about why we use prescribed fire, when and where prescribed fire is planned and when smoke is to be expected, and what you can do to reduce your exposure to smoke. During the summer wildfire season, the focus on the website will shift to wildfire, wildfire smoke, air quality, and public health information.

So, check out the new website (www.centraloregonfire.org).

And, tell your neighbors, your family, your friends…heck, tell the person standing next to you in the grocery store checkout line:

“We are accepting some smoke now in the spring to make our forests healthier and our communities and firefighters safer.”

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(c) 2023 Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project