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Oregon’s wildfire without a forest proves forest management isn’t enough

What makes wildfires particularly scary is the climate feedback effect; the more wildfires there are, the more they release carbon and fuel more climate change.

A burnt-out business in Oregon

Summers were my favorite growing up in Southern Oregon. My childhood memories are full of dusty adventures and still afternoons by rivers.

But for the past few years, the joys of summer come with the looming anxiety of the ever-expansive fire season. August and September are often stifled by smoke; wilderness no longer feels safe. 

This year, the threat of fires got a lot closer to home. 

Three weeks ago, a fire — now known as the Almeda Fire — sparked down the street from my parents’ home in Ashland and ripped through the Rogue Valley, decimating two towns: Talent and Phoenix. My family’s house is safe; thousands in the Valley weren’t as lucky. 

An estimated 2,500 residential structures burned in the towns, which have a collective population of 11,000. The fires destroyed a chunk of the scarce affordable housing in the region, affecting some of the most marginalized people in the community. As the school year starts, an estimated 80 percent of elementary school children in Phoenix and 50 percent of elementary children in Talent are homeless

A wildfire without the forest

It has been a record-breaking year for wildfires on the West Coast. With it, a debate has taken shape: Are the fires fueled by poor forest management or climate change? 

Here’s the thing: The Almeda Fire was never in the forest. It started in a residential area and, thanks to climate-charged winds and super dry conditions, moved through towns so quickly authorities barely had time to evacuate homes in front of the blaze. Almeda wasn’t very large by wildfire standards, but it began and ended all within densely populated areas. 

If lawmakers think we can’t afford to act now, they should see how much more inaction will cost.

Oregon State Sen. Jeff Golden (D-Rogue Valley), my dad and chair of the Oregon Senate’s Wildfire Reduction and Recovery Committee, represents the district that burned. 

"In this case, the factor, almost exclusively, was climate change," Golden shared with me. "Whatever vegetation there was is extraordinarily dry, same as in the forest, but this wind, this gusty, sustained, chaotic wind, was an unusual episode. I can't exactly tie it to climate change, but it is part of the climate chaos that we're experiencing."

Of course, both climate and forest management play a role. Unsustainable logging practices and fire suppression have undermined the health of our forests across the west. Meanwhile, the changing climate is responsible for drier and hotter weather and aberrant weather patterns. Fires that were once a normal part of ecological cycles now rage out of control, with unnatural amounts of unnaturally dry fuels. 

States must take forest management seriously to minimize the size and scale of future fires. But what the Almeda fire shows is that if we don’t urgently address climate change, forest management alone isn’t enough. 

It’s time to prepare for climate chaos 

Golden says it’s too early to know exactly what happened during the Almeda Fire, but we have an idea where our community — and other communities in the west — need to increase efforts. 

"We have a lot of work to do on community preparedness, warning systems, helping people prepare themselves to evacuate at virtually any time, and plan evacuation routes," Golden said. "There were failures in the alert system that need to be addressed. People that opted into text system were getting warnings, but the emergency broadcast system didn't function, and we aren't clear on why."

In addition, Golden said the state — and indeed the West Coast — has work to do to retard the spread and impact of wildfires in urbanized areas, including defensible space around structures, hardening of homes, changing building codes and changing zoning in some cases. 

"That was on our plate in the last couple years as we worked on a comprehensive wildfire policy, but it’s zoomed to the top now," he said. 

Anecdotally, it seems homeowners in Southern Oregon have stepped up clearing fuel around their property since the fire. This week, my mom went to the local waste transfer station and found a long line of trucks brimming with yard debris. The danger of fire just isn’t abstract any longer. 

Car Almeda Fire

The economic costs

The colliding crises of COVID and climate are squeezing state budgets. Before the recent fire devastation, Golden said lawmakers already faced the unenviable job of needing to close a $4 billion gap within Oregon’s $12 billion discretionary fund. 

"What will suffer at least on the state level in the next couple years is vegetation management and fuel reduction, just because it's expensive and we're so low on resources right now," Golden said. 

Oregon isn’t alone in feeling the economic squeeze of extreme weather. As of July — before the catastrophic fires in the west and hurricane flooding in the south — climate disasters were responsible for an estimated $308 billion in damages. 

According to NOAA, this cost has been steadily rising. The average cost for natural disasters in the U.S. averaged $27.2 billion per year from 1990 to 1999; $51.7 billion per year from 2000 to 2009; $80.7 billion per year from 2010 to 2019; and $153.5 billion per year from 2017 to 2019. 

Of course, part of the increase in costs is due to more development on coastlines and more people living in the wildland-urban interface (especially in California where many seek more affordable housing). Still, NOAA’s analysis shows the number of natural disasters, and their intensity, is on the rise. 

What makes wildfires particularly scary is the climate feedback effect; the more wildfires there are, the more they release carbon and fuel more climate change. Additionally, urgent action now still means we’ll have years — if not decades — of growing intensity before these get better. 

If lawmakers think we can’t afford to act now, they should see how much more inaction will cost. 

Hear my full conversation with Oregon State Sen.Jeff Golden on this week’s GreenBiz 350

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