Commentary

As Oregon’s wildfire season fades, new approaches to managing risk need to take hold

Legislation sets stage to better address wildland urban interface across the state

A fire engine sits ruined by wildfire in Detroit, Oregon, in September 2020. (Salem Reporter photo)

In 1910, fire rampaged through western Montana and northern Idaho, burning more than 3 million acres of prime timber, destroying towns and buildings, and causing many fatalities.

This Great Fire of 1910, or “Big Burn,” was a political catalyst for our current human-fire relationship. Multiple policies followed that focused on and prioritized fire exclusion, suppressing wildfires as soon as possible to protect timber and human resources.

These policies and their successful implementation led to many of our current expectations regarding living within and benefiting from our natural landscapes.

In the century since, three key changes have occurred, creating a perfect storm in wildland urban interface (WUI) communities, the geographical area where structures and other human development meets or intermingles with wildland or vegetative fuels. Fire suppression and exclusion have resulted in dense, fuel laden forests that often changed forest type. More people live in WUI communities and near these new forests. And we are experiencing longer droughts and heat waves due to climate change.

The culture of wildfire suppression appeared sustainable for the forests, communities, and climate of Oregon throughout the 20th century. Today, areas of the western U.S. routinely experience fires that burn as intensely as the Great Fire of 1910, and Oregon is no exception.

The large fires of 2020 and 2021 have shown us the current situation is unsustainable. To survive, we must accept that we cannot prevent fires from occurring and instead embrace divergent thinking and adaptation. In the absence of comprehensive shifts in federal policies to address this perfect storm, the best avenue for change is coming from states and local governments.

Oregon Senate Bill 762, which became law in July, is Oregon’s first comprehensive wildfire mitigation and resilience bill. In part, this bill offers both “carrots and sticks” across a breadth of fire related adaptation challenges, to improve Oregon’s resilience and protect our most vulnerable from our rapidly changing environment. It brings together stakeholders and experts from around the state, along with input from the public and engaged citizens, in a collaborative process based on science and planning for the future.

The bill bridges silos and supports the development of new relationships – necessary steps towards resilient WUI communities and landscapes.

The WUI is the fastest growing land use in the U.S., encompassing many of our rural areas and communities. In the WUI, not only are properties and lives at risk, homes themselves are fuel for wildfire just as vegetation is in the wildland. Mitigation reduces the susceptibility of homes to wildfire loss and can reduce the intensity of fire within the WUI.

Data from previous fires shows that mitigation of homes is impactful. Homes that used nonflammable material for roofs have a 70% survival rate for fires; when coupled with just 10 meters of clearance of vegetative fuels (defensible space), the survival rate increases to 86%. Policies matter, too; structures that are located in or near a Firewise designated community have a lower rate of destruction. Firewise is a federally funded framework to help communities at risk to wildfires organize and take action to reduce wildfire risks within their community.

We often think of recovery as a simple process: people return and rebuild and a community persists. However, we have seen that recovery following disasters is anything but guaranteed.

Critical infrastructure encompasses utilities, emergency management workers, and the infrastructure that supports life and the social fabric, such as hospitals and schools. When more homes are mitigated in WUI communities, the risk of damage to critical infrastructure decreases, improving the resilience and persistence of the community.

The power of SB 762 is that it combines definitions and understanding of the WUI with updated awareness of wildfire hazard and exposure, their vulnerability, with updated mapping of communities at risk. These are interconnected human and natural systems, and community mitigation will only work if paired with mitigation on forested lands.

To work best, mitigation is a collaboration between local governments, land management agencies and homeowners.

SB 762 and the efforts it directs are critical for Oregon’s future, whether or not you live in the WUI or ever expect to flee an oncoming wildfire. The impacts of wildfire are felt by all citizens, in the human cost, economic losses, smoke inhaled and environmental effects.

This legislation engages our shared responsibility as a state, to protect ourselves and our neighbors, and to protect those most vulnerable to wildfire impacts. It’s an important step in moving past the policies that led us to this perfect storm, and bringing us closer to a more sustainable future.

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Erica Fischer

Dr. Erica Fischer is an assistant professor of structural engineering in Oregon State University’s School of Civil and Construction Engineering.

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Mindy Crandall

Dr. Mindy Crandall is an assistant professor of forest policy in Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.

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Chris Dunn

Dr. Christopher Dunn is on the research faculty in wildfire risk management at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.

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